On Tuesday, there was still an hour and a half until lunchtime, and cars were already lining up in a parking lot off Airline Drive in Metairie, Louisiana, as locals waited patiently for a hot meal made and served by the Virginia-based nonprofit Mercy Chefs. “It’s been insane,” says Gary LeBlanc, the organization’s founder and CEO. “We’ve been serving about 20,000 meals a day for the last week, and every day we add another five hundred somehow.” Between its thirteen mobile kitchens across the state in communities such as Hammond, LaPlace, Houma, Golden Meadow, Raceland, and Larose, the organization served 21,403 plates on Monday, topping the record-setting 18,000 meals served in a single day after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The need in the area is just that great. Entergy, the state’s power company, estimated that Ida downed more than 30,000 utility poles and 5,600 transformers, knocking out power for more than one million people. The state has also recently been under a heat advisory, with a heat index in the New Orleans area around 105 degrees. LeBlanc says that many of the people his team served are bunking with friends, relatives, or neighbors, sometimes cramming more than a dozen people into whatever house had power and an intact roof. “So many people here are phenomenally discouraged. They feel abandoned and disregarded as the news cycle has moved on,” LeBlanc says. “So, we try to give them what little dignity we can in this time of need.”
LeBlanc’s family hails from southern Louisiana and he spent two decades early in his career working in hotel kitchens in New Orleans. After watching from his home in Portsmouth, Virginia, as Hurricane Katrina devastated his home state, he knew he had to help. “The only thing I knew to do was to cook,” he says. “I came down here to help, but I didn’t like what so many organizations were serving. I saw how so often they would scoop expired cans of green beans straight onto a plate and serve it with two frozen chicken nuggets. I knew there was a better way to feed people.”
Sixteen years later, Mercy Chefs has continued to serve chef-prepared meals with fresh ingredients such as lasagna, chicken salad, taco bowls, and even, when available, five-ounce smoked sirloins. “People start driving off and they look in the box to see what’s for dinner,” LeBlanc says. “When we served steaks, we had people slamming on their brakes, running back, and hugging our necks. We believe that food is love and we’re here to love people.”
Mercy Chefs spends roughly $2.50 per meal. “At 20,000 meals a day, that really adds up,” LeBlanc says. “What someone gives today, we can put on a plate tonight.” Donate to Mercy Chef’s Hurricane Ida response here, and see a list of some other on-the-ground organizations here.