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‘Everybody’s Kitchen’ delivers meals in Louisiana bayou country

Volunteers with the charity group use converted school buses to prepare food for the needy – currently in a part of Louisiana still reeling from hurricane damage.

By Bill SasserCorrespondent / November 26, 2008

Personal delivery: Jim ‘Floppy’ Land hands a meal to Chris Brunet of Isle de Jean Charles, La., who had to evacuate his house for 39 days after hurricane Gustav.

Bill Sasser

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Pointe-aux-Chenes, La.

In the small fishing villages southwest of New Orleans, the holidays will still be celebrated this season. But for many residents whose lives have been upended by four hurricanes in the past three years, just getting back to work and sleeping under their own roofs is a struggle that leaves time for little else. Enter “Floppy” and his rolling lunch counter.

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“They got hit twice in September, first Gustav then Ike, so it takes awhile to get straightened out,” says the easygoing guy behind the wheel of an old Chevy van, a long way from his hometown of Detroit. A founder of a free kitchen operating from two converted school buses, he usually goes by “Floppy,” but, when pressed, confesses that his name is Jim Land.

With a blond mane hanging past his shoulders topped by an ever-present Tigers cap, he has been on the road for most of the past 15 years offering free meals wherever Everybody’s Kitchen – a roving canteen on wheels – finds a need.

“When you and all your extended family had eight feet of water in your houses and you’re spending all your free time sheet-rocking, the last thing you have time to do is cook and clean up,” he says, waving at a passing vehicle on the narrow two-lane state road. The driver of the pickup truck gestures back. It’s a meeting of Cajun culture and a do-good counterculture that might seem improbable here in clannish, self-reliant bayou country.

But in Pointe-aux-Chenes and some other small towns, the shaggy outside idealists and the pragmatic local shrimpers have formed a strong bond in a period of great need.

“What they’re doing here is real good – a big help,” says Chris Brunet, a frequent recipient of the group’s food who had to evacuate his house for 39 days after hurricane Gustav.

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Pointe-aux-Chenes lies in a remote area known as “the bottoms of the bayou,” where roads dead-end at the wetlands that become the Gulf of Mexico. Most residents fish for a living or work in offshore oil. Acadian French is spoken here, and many families trace their lineage to the Houma Indians, who settled in the early 19th century after being displaced by European colonization upriver.

Though the area isn’t known for being open to outsiders, the volunteers of Everybody’s Kitchen say the people of southern Terrebonne Parish have made them feel right at home. “We’re not a charity, we’re here in solidarity,” says Ben Fox, a young volunteer from Philadelphia with dreadlocks and wire-rim glasses. “We believe in sharing food because it’s a good thing to do – everybody has a right to a good home-cooked meal, no matter what their circumstances.”

Local fishermen have offered some of their catch, and others have donated canned goods to support the free meals prepared in the group’s yellow school bus. The vehicle is retrofitted with a propane-fueled range, stainless-steel washbasins, and a rooftop solar panel for electricity.

A second bus, painted robin’s-egg blue, serves as a food locker and sleeping quarters for several of the group’s dozen or so volunteers. The rest camp in tents on the back lawn of a Catholic church here. They start their days around 4:30 a.m. and have breakfast ready by 6 a.m.

“It’s a lot harder to wake up every morning for something you don’t want to do, for a paycheck, when you could be doing something you really love,” says Anne Mackell, a Philadelphia native who has traveled with the volunteer kitchen for two years.

Cindy Lyons, who lives in the nearby town of Bourg, pulls into the church parking lot at 3 p.m. to pick up plates of beans, rice, and fruit salad for herself, her two children, and her father. He’s been living with her since his house was flooded by hurricane Ike.
“The Red Cross was here for a month after Ike and Gustav,” says Ms. Lyons. “FEMA gave us $500 and that was it. These folks here are the only ones still helping us.”

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