‘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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

“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.

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“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.”

Many of the kitchen’s core volunteers are veterans of the 2005 hurricane season. Felipe Chavez, for instance, helped start free kitchens in Waveland, Miss., and New Orleans after Katrina. Later, in the city’s Ninth Ward, Everybody’s Kitchen served tens of thousands of meals to returning residents and volunteers with the aid group Common Ground Relief.
Overt religion or politics don’t seem to play a part in their volunteerism. “When people discover we’re not a government program or have an agenda, they open up,” says Mr. Land.

Land helped start the free kitchen with a camping stove set up in a city park in Gainesville, Fla., in 1993. The peripatetic group is now on its third converted school bus and has served up to 2,000 meals a day in inner cities and disaster zones across the country. For the past two summers, they’ve run kitchens just over the border in Mexico, in Mexicali and Nogales, serving meals to migrants who have been deported. They spent August in Denver, serving 1,200 meals a day during the Democratic National Convention.

Donations come from sympathetic nonprofits, a network of former volunteers, and businesses and individuals who just want to help. “There’s all kind of people across the country who know about what we’re doing and want to pitch in some way,” says Land.

Having arrived in Pointe-aux-Chenes in late October, the group is now serving a few hundred meals a day, a number that grows as word spreads. “We had to get out and meet people, talk to them to find out what’s going on, and what they like to eat,” says James McGuinness, a volunteer from Brooklyn, N.Y. “We want everyone comfortable with the food we’re cooking.”

A few dozen cars will pick up breakfast and dinner plates in the parking lot over the course of the day, and Everybody’s Kitchen delivers meals to a recreation center in nearby Dulac, where a levee breach flooded the town with five feet of water. They also offer meals door-to-door in Pointe-aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles, predominately Houma Indian towns.

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His van loaded with dinners, Land drives past ever-present signs of the 2008 hurricane season: household belongings piled along roadsides, roofs covered with blue tarps, downed trees, windows sheathed in plywood. At each home he spends a few minutes chatting with residents.

One family off highway 665 is tearing down a mobile home by hand. Gustav knocked it off its raised foundation. Ike flooded it with eight feet of water. “Right now we’re homeless,” says Madonna Defelice, whose three children, ages 4 to 10, play in the yard. “We didn’t have flood insurance this time, and FEMA’s not helping us.” Ms. Defelice is living with her parents. An uncle lives in a tent in her backyard.

Along Oak Point Road, where damaged shrimp boats list on their sides, Mel Guidry is putting up new walls in his mother’s house. Volunteers from Common Ground in New Orleans helped him dismantle parts of the house the week before. Mr. Guidry is a member of the Billiot clan, one of three Houma family lines that include every house along this half-mile stretch of road. “You give them folks a ‘thanks again’ from me and my family,” he tells Land.

On Thanksgiving, Land and the other volunteers will be cooking and making their usual deliveries. The menu, though, won’t include turkey. It will feature more local foods.

“We’ll be here for whoever wants to have dinner with us, though we’re not sure what the menu will be just yet – beans and rice for sure,” says Land, “but one of our fishermen might bring us a truckload of seafood.”

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