Mid-September was a tough time for Mariana Schell, operations director at the Food Bank of Lincoln.
On Sept. 19, a devastating earthquake wracked Mexico City, where she grew up during her first 15 years.
“All of my family is in Mexico,” Schell said. “They are all alive and safe, thankfully. Some have been hit with material losses, but those can be replaced. It’s ironic that exactly to the day, 32 years earlier on Sept. 19, 1985, Mexico City was hit by another earthquake. I was a sixth-grader, and I remember it clearly. So to see this happen again, it’s really sad. But people are helping each other.”
The day after the Mexico City earthquake, on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. It was the second hurricane in two weeks to hit the U.S. territory – causing much more extensive damage than Hurricane Irma.
While Schell was not in a position to travel to Mexico, she has done plenty in Puerto Rico the past two years that will help that recovery effort. She has traveled there multiple times as a consultant to help Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico (food bank of Puerto Rico) meet the Feeding America network’s regulations for storing, transporting and distributing food.
Schell’s consulting efforts are paying off for Puerto Rico as its food bank plays a major role in distributing food, water and supplies to residents throughout the islands in the wake of damage caused by Hurricane Maria.
Helping to assess the damages
“It has been a sad time,” Schell said. “Hopefully, no more hurricanes or earthquakes. People in those communities will help each other the best they can. But it’s hard to be so far away, feeling like I’m not helping. I wish I was there, carrying water or comforting someone.”
She got her wish. A few days after our interview, Schell was invited to make a fourth trip to Puerto Rico Oct. 14-25.
“I am very excited about the trip and helping out,” she said. “Helping after a hurricane will be a new experience for me. Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico wants me to partner with Johanna Grey, their agency relations coordinator, to visit their agencies and assess the damage sustained and what they would need to fix or reopen them."
Gathering the damage data will be important in obtaining funding through the food bank for repairs, she added.
Schell noted that her travels to Puerto Rico are not paid for by the Food Bank of Lincoln. Corporate funds, donated to the Feeding America network to support Puerto Rico’s food bank, have paid for her trips.
Keeping in contact with the Puerto Rico food bank, Schell learned that one staff member lost her home and another one’s home was damaged, but everyone was OK. The food bank took in water since windows were broken, but fortunately no food was damaged, she said.
Feeding America has also sent Carol Garrity, compliance capacity officer, and Patrick Crawford, director of disaster services, who have supported Puerto Rico food bank efforts by participating in twice-daily meetings with National VOAD, an association of organizations responding to the disaster, and working closely with FEMA and other disaster relief partners.
According to a Feeding America update emailed to the Food Bank of Lincoln, the disaster response in Puerto Rico consists of trucks transporting food and water from the San Juan airport to a central warehouse operated by FEMA. From there, trucks move those items to regional distribution centers across Puerto Rico. The food bank has mobilized a fleet to distribute the items from the distribution centers to agencies throughout Puerto Rico.
Food and water must be shipped
Since Hurricane Maria’s massive destruction in Puerto Rico, food, water and supplies must be shipped to the island, making access more difficult for a population that, even before the hurricanes, included 1.6 million, or 40 percent, of its 4 million residents living in poverty and food insecurity, Schell said.
Puerto Rico is making gradual progress on the long road to recovery, she said. Some flights are starting to arrive and depart from the San Juan airport, and a small number of businesses are reopening. However, much of the territory remains without power, fuel and other critical services.
“Rebuilding, even here in the states, will take a lot of time,” she said. “In Puerto Rico, it may take five months to a year, unfortunately.”
As of early October, Feeding America had allocated and/or shipped more than 650,000 pounds of food and supplies to Puerto Rico, and it planned to ship more than 30 additional truckloads to the island. In addition, Feeding America placed more than 75 temporary staff members at affected food banks.
“Feeding America has also been able to get corporations to donate money to affected areas,” Schell said. “On the national level, it has connections to large, iconic companies like Kellogg that provide financial support.”
The Feeding America network is providing assistance to food banks in all hurricane-damaged areas where U.S. citizens reside. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, Feeding America has shipped over 19 million pounds of food, water and supplies (616 truckloads) to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other affected areas, Schell said.
Schell initially learned about Lincoln in the mid-1990s while earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Querétaro, Mexico. She befriended Trina Lammert from Lincoln who had visited Queretaro as an exchange student.
“When I graduated, I was not yet ready for a formal job, so I called to find out if I could visit Trina,” Schell said. “I stayed with her for two months in an apartment at the Georgian Place above the downtown YMCA.”
After working for auction and insurance companies in Lincoln, Schell was hired as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach coordinator for the Food Bank of Lincoln in 2010. From 2011-14, she was the food bank’s agency relations director, making sure agencies complied with Feeding America network regulations.
“That helped me understand the operations side of the food bank, and for the last three years I’ve been the operations director,” she said. “Because of that experience, Feeding America invited me to visit the food bank in Puerto Rico as a consultant. I love to travel and I love to help people learn to help themselves, so it has been a great opportunity.”