Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole is working with others in the hunger relief community and new partners to serve a “tidal wave of need.”

One of the nation’s largest food banks and a regional supplier, Second Harvest Heartland and other such programs were seeing more visitors than ever this year before the coronavirus pandemic hit, O’Toole said.

“As we see the rise in unemployment insurance applications, that is the volume that’s coming to us and our partners,” O’Toole said. “Many of these folks have never been to a food shelf before. We’ve seen the need increase exponentially; it was immediate and we are trouble shooting and problem solving every second of every day to meet the tidal wave of need coming at us.”

Second Harvest Heartland quickly redesigned its distribution system, volunteer program and other operations in response to the pandemic, said O’Toole, who joined a year before the outbreak. In late March the organization and its 170 employees moved to its new 233,000-square-foot warehouse and headquarters in Brooklyn Park from its longtime Maplewood location.

Under its COVID-19 plan, Second Harvest Heartland has distributed a third of a planned 165,000 emergency food boxes.

It also has partnered with idled caterers and restaurateurs to create Minnesota Central Kitchen, distributing nearly 180,000 meals through Loaves & Fishes free public-dining program putting more than 120 people back to work. It has helped visitors complete 1,265 applications, double the usual number, to SNAP, the food stamp program.

O’Toole, a former MNsure CEO, previously was senior director of state affairs at United States of Care, a health care policy nonprofit.

Her passion for serving those in need stems from growing up working alongside her father in the family’s south Minneapolis pharmacy and the influence of her mother, “a very strong North Dakota woman.”

Q: What will serving so many newcomers mean for Second Harvest Heartland?

A: Our whole philosophy is neighbors helping neighbors. When someone needs a hand we’re all here to help. If they can give help we will graciously accept it when the time is right.

Q: Why did you join Second Harvest Heartland?

A: I have dedicated my entire career to helping our community be better and helping Minnesotans have the resources they need to thrive and this is no different. Every day science tells us more definitively that the right food and the peace of mind of a full cupboard are crucial to thriving and living a healthy, satisfying life. To put it simply, good nutritious food is a shortcut to those solutions we’re all talking about in health care. Our mission of solving hunger and my chance to lead this organization feels so well aligned to me.

Q: What’s next for the organization?

A: We have a new strategic plan that will set our course for the next five years. It doubles down on efficiency, ability and capacity to provide more healthy food to more people. It focuses on strengthening partnerships with everyone who is in this fight with us. What I want people to know most is the true face of hunger in our community and the experience of so many families that are next door to us that we don’t often think about. So we’re going to keep using our voice in this conversation and try to elevate it.


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is