At the helm of Second Harvest for more than two decades, Elaine Streno has led the charge in providing food for the most in need in East Tennessee. And while this executive director has much to feel proud of, she admits she’s far from done. She is enthusiastically ready for the next steps in her Second Harvest career.
Most people don’t know this, but this is Elaine Streno’s second time at Second Harvest. “I just saw a little ad in the paper,” she says when I ask about her intro to the organization. “A little nonprofit needed a director, and I answered that and did a lot of interviews.” It was 1984; Elaine had just moved to Knoxville with her husband from Washington, DC.
She got the job, but it wasn’t long before Elaine and her family moved away for her husband’s work. Within the decade, she was called back to Knoxville and lo and behold the position was there for her. “It spiritually aligned itself again, and I got the job again in 1993.” So yes, this is her second time with Second Harvest.
Since then, she’s worked to eliminate hunger in East Tennessee’s 18-county service area. “It sounds very value and mission oriented, but there’s a whole lot of challenges with that,” she admits. There are eight different feeding programs in an area that Elaine calls “broad and diverse. Mountains, urban, we really have to customize it for this community. We are not a pantry, we do not distribute food to the needy—although if you come here, we would give you a pretty hefty box of food—but our mission is to supply the partners with food.”
Things have changed a lot in this arena since Elaine’s first stint as executive director. “The Feeding America network started as there was so much food being thrown awayin the United States in the ’60s and ’70s,” she explains, “and so it was set up where a community would want an entity, a warehouse to take this food that was being tossed from big food companies.”
All of the food was donated, “so you kind of never knew what was coming down the pike,” she explains. And while those donations were important, they were “not meeting the needs of this community when it was donated.” So they joined other food banks and came up with a new business plan: they started purchasing inventory.
What was once a team of five at Second Harvest is now a team of 50, all working diligently to feed their neighbors. “If anyone had told me how big it would become, I would have run the other way because it was a little tiny place with a little tiny budget, little tiny fundraising efforts. And that’s of course grown into a huge budget, a lot of stuff and a lot of fundraising.”
But she didn’t run the other way; she leaned in. The year she rejoined the organization, a fellow nonprofit director told her, “You have to spend money to make money.” Elaine never forgot this. “So when you sit down and tell your board of directors, ‘We need to,’ and ‘there’s no money,’ they have to take a leap of faith and spend it anyway,” she says. “That’s what my board did 20 years ago. That’s information that was helpful to me because how do you let the community know you’re here and that we need you and all that stuff?”
Utilizing that model paid off for her and she has things throughout her tenure at Second Harvest that make her sit back in awe of what she was able to accomplish with her team. And first and foremost was the warehouse.
Second Harvest’s old warehouse flooded and the board helped Elaine find an existing warehouse in their service area that they could utilize. “It wasn’t built to be a food bank; it’s a lot nicer than a food bank should be,” she admits. “It’s made a tremendous difference in our efficiency. So I’ll hang my hat on this facility. And the beauty of it is it’s paid for, and so we have no debt in that regard. I’m very proud of that.”
As Elaine speaks, it’s hard not to feel proud for our community and the work being accomplished here. I feel that even more so as she tells me about the level of camaraderie she’s seen in the nonprofit sector these days that wasn’t there a decade ago, along with the increase in giving and generosity she’s seen during the last two years. “You don’t want to wake up in the morning and know that your neighbor cannot provide meals to their children,” she says. “I think people saw their stories and just said now I want to help them.”
Elaine tells me that it’s not only the gratitude she sees from the community that keeps getting her up every morning, but also seeing what they’re doing for others. “When people need food, there’s a lot of chaos, there’s a lot of dysfunction, there’s a lot of addiction. There’s just a lot of reasons people need Second Harvest, and so it’s that hope that we give them when we can provide a meal.”
And as we finish our conversation, it seems clear she’s far from done. “I don’t like being asked when I’m going to retire,” she says with a laugh, adding later, “Yes, we have a succession plan, we’re working on all that but I love what I do still so much. I’m just not ready to not do it.”