‘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.
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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.
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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.
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.”