This post is part of our “Leadership in Challenging Times” blog series, which highlights the inspiring work of the HBS community in addressing the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, alongside the fight for racial equity and an especially polarized political climate. In this post, Thierry Ibri (MBA 1997) discusses his work as Chief Operations and Program Officer at Second Harvest Heartland and reflects on how his team adapted to the challenges of 2020 and delivered more than 105 million meals to people in need.

Early in 2020, many in the hunger-relief world were noting how we had finally reached pre-Great Recession levels of food insecurity across the country. That level of hunger – with 1 in 11 Minnesotans – was unacceptable, so we were highly motivated to lower hunger further. And then COVID struck. By May, 1 in 8 Minnesotans, including 1 in 5 kids, were food insecure.

At Second Harvest Heartland, one of the country’s largest and most efficient food banks, we distributed more than 105 million meals to our network community partners and programs last year. We refer to that segment of our work – food bank operations, sourcing, food rescue, transportation – as ‘feeding the line’ because it’s meeting acute hunger needs across our 59-county region in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We also work to ‘shorten the line’ (prevent need for emergency hunger services) through our child hunger initiative, our SNAP outreach, our FOODRx program partnership with health care providers, our public policy work, and more. It all rolls up to our mission of ending hunger together.

And that’s what has gotten us through 2020: our mission. Mission makes decision-making clearer, especially during crisis.

The surge in demand from our partners was immediate in mid-March. We hurried a move into our brand-new warehouse so we could respond to the very steep increase in need – a 30 percent increase over the previous year’s output. My primary concern is, and has been, having enough food to meet demand. Equally as concerning was keeping our team safe and healthy, and ensuring we didn’t close down.

After a dizzying first few weeks of response and adaptation, we took a breath and reached out to McKinsey & Company to help us forecast demand . We needed projections and we needed to plan and in this partnership we at least had a broad understanding of how need might expand. It made me grateful for the Technology and Operations Management course at HBS.

Just as we were getting a handle on current and future-state demand, the world’s racial justice uprisings sparked in our home town, Minneapolis. Overnight, entire neighborhoods didn’t have access to food because stores were destroyed or closed for safety. Transportation was shut down. We had to identify partners and mobilize distribution very rapidly. And not just food, but diapers, baby formula, toilet paper. Collaboration with retail and corporate partners allowed us to source what the community told us they needed most.

Dark and trying as this year has been, there have been bright spots. In every crisis there’s an opportunity, and you learn that at HBS. But in my 30+ year career, I have never experienced that so directly, so vividly, as I did this year, specifically with our COVID-response prepared meals initiative, Minnesota Central Kitchen.

We had no idea what COVID was going to become and for how long, but we knew from our hospitality partners that restaurants were going to close even before they were required to. It raised flags: layoffs, idle kitchens, abandoned food, so many folks not able to access nutritious meals. We had to do something. We called a meal distribution partner to ask if they’d be able to accept and distribute meals if we could get them prepared, and they were elated to hear from us. They were wondering just the opposite: ‘With all of our kitchen volunteers staying home, how could we feed our clients?’ It was going to be an investment, and yet another new service line, but our CEO agreed we should do this. Nine months in, Minnesota Central Kitchen has served more than one million meals to community.

That’s the greatest insight I have gained this year: the need for decisive action. When you work for a truly mission-driven organization, it gives you permission to say yes. But ideas don’t have to have to be perfectly baked. You will improve. We’ve been improving. The most difficult part, the most important part, is deciding to act.

In much of my career I have found myself saying no a lot. But during this period, I have been saying yes so much more. It’s empowered my team to respond to their new and varied challenges, and it’s more fully rooted each of us in our mission. Our team has been strengthened by these crises, and that’s what inspires me. That and support from our community. This immediate and deep support has helped us say yes more and make the right decisions as the pandemic surges on.

Those interested in learning more about Second Harvest Heartland and food banking can visit 2harvest.org.