How Allison O’Toole Of Second Harvest Heartland Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine
Published in
7 min readApr 7, 2022


Our mission at Second Harvest Heartland is to end hunger together. As a food bank, one of the largest in the country, we source and distribute more than 120 million pounds of food each year, supplying 388 community food shelves with the fresh food and pantry staples, so their neighbors can shop for the nutrition they need. In total, we provide more than 85% of the food they distribute.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis of people having limited reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As prices rise, this problem will likely become more acute. How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to address the increasing problem of food insecurity who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve this problem.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Allison O’Toole.

Allison O’Toole is CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, one of the largest, most efficient, and most innovative hunger relief organizations in the nation. In close partnership with a network of 388 food shelves and nearly 1,000 partner programs, Second Harvest Heartland supports people in Minnesota and western Wisconsin facing hunger.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My career can really be explained through the love I have for this community. I was born and raised in south Minneapolis. I love so much about Minnesota. And Minnesotans. Which means I care about the health and wellbeing of all Minnesotans. There has always been a mission to my work — whether it’s ensuring elected officials do right by their constituents or expanding health insurance access. I’m honored that my current role, leading the exceptional team at Second Harvest Heartland, brings it all together: Supporting our neighbors access to healthy, nutritious food so they’re setup to thrive.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

A pivotal moment for me as a leader in mission-based work came in 2016 and the results of that election. I was serving in my first CEO role, leading implementation of Minnesota’s state health insurance exchange, a critical tenant of the Affordable Care Act that would enable thousands of Minnesotans otherwise barriered to coverage to enroll into affordable health insurance. I was worried, as were many, that a new administration would work to gut the ACA and take away access at the very time that the exchange was finally working well in Minnesota. It also came at a time when I received a very competitive job offer. Ultimately, I couldn’t run away from the progress we were making. I had to see our work through and to withstand whatever might come our way next. The tipping point for me was the cementing of mission; I realized my professional role in the world was to serve my community.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mom. My first glass-ceiling breaker. She’s of an age where the only professions presented to her after graduating college in three years was teacher or nurse. So she taught. But she had other dreams. She earned her master’s and then, while raising two baby girls, earned her PhD. When I was in fourth grade, she got her JD. She defied the limitations that were put on her. She was steadfast. And she did it all with an outward energy and warmth that I try to emulate. Even today at 78, nothing can keep her down.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I played basketball in high school. Our team rarely won. In fact, we’d often lose badly. It was rough. So much so that in the mornings when I’d be gathering my uniform and packing my game bag, trudging through the house, already defeated, my dad would chime in: Get back out there. Simple but wise. I think that’s where my determination comes from. Determination along with my passion and authenticity have served me, the teams I lead, and the missions we work towards.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of our Second Harvest Heartland board members, the incredible Christina Hennington, shared a quote from John Maxwell with me recently:

The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.

Christina is an amazing leader. She’s been at Target for 18 years, currently serving as EVP and Chief Growth Officer. She was also our board chair in 2020 when COVID-19 changed everything overnight. This quote has been so poignant over the past two years. There has been so much we could have complained about (and we did a bit, of course!) and it was oftentimes difficult to be hopeful. What we could do — what we had to do for our team members and our community members — was adjust. The quote helps anchor me to what’s within my control and reminds me the adjustments I make chart the path forward for our team.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?

Our mission at Second Harvest Heartland is to end hunger together. As a food bank, one of the largest in the country, we source and distribute more than 120 million pounds of food each year, supplying 388 community food shelves with the fresh food and pantry staples, so their neighbors can shop for the nutrition they need. In total, we provide more than 85% of the food they distribute.

But we’re more than a food distributor; we’re a leading partner in the policies and programs that work to end hunger, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, school meals and senior nutrition programs. And, we’re an innovator in the areas where food can be the solution, like FOODRx and Minnesota Central Kitchen. Our team works hard every day to keep families fed and well.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I often introduce myself as ‘the very proud CEO of Second Harvest Heartland’. Our team makes me so proud, and they remind me of that every single day. I am proud of how we have responded to the changing demands of the pandemic and rising rates of hunger. I am proud in how we showed up every day for each other, looking out for one another and keeping each other safe. We’ve got the best team in town!

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?

The good news about fighting hunger is that there is a role for each of us to play. It starts with making the issue visible, so that those who might need some support can reach out to the resources available. There’s too much stigma in seeking help.

For those who are able — to give time, to give money, to lend their voice or brand to the hunger fight — there’s a role to play. I encourage everyone to find their place in addressing and ending hunger. However folks show up, we need everyone to stick with us until we find ourselves on more solid ground. The persisting pandemic and economic recovery that’s coming too slowly for too many means today’s hunger is tougher to live with and tougher to fight.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address the challenge of food scarcity? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

I can’t say enough about the CEO of Feeding America, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. In her four years at Feeding America, the national hunger relief organization of which we’re affiliated, she has elevated the issue of hunger and brought greater awareness and understanding to our work. She’s also bringing an equity lens to hunger fighting and leading bold investments to address disparities. She’s bringing different partners to the table and reimaging how we partner. The ways she’s adjusting the sails of hunger fighting is the leadership we need right now.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

We do have the power to influence legislation. Each and every one of us, at every level of government. As an organization, we’re active advocates for the policies and programs that work to address and reduce hunger, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and federal nutrition programs that make school meals possible. Legislation and laws impact so many aspects of daily life, and are critical tools in ending hunger and advancing equity. If everyone who has been touched by food insecurity used their voice, we could change the game.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It’s about equity. About confronting and addressing true inequity. Which in turn lifts everyone up.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Facebook: /2harvest

LinkedIn: /second-harvest-heartland

Twitter: /2harvest

Instagram: /secondharvestheartland

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.