Louisiana is the second hungriest state in the nation, second only to Mississippi, according to the organization Feeding America, the U.S.'s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. One in six households in the state are at risk of hunger, one in five children don't always know where their next meal is coming from, and one in 11 senior citizens have to choose between medication or food.
Chef Jeremy Conner Photo by Robin May
Second Harvest Food Bank, the largest anti-hunger network in Louisiana, is working to combat those statistics. As a whole, the organization covers 23 parishes and works with about 300 member agencies. Out of the Lafayette facility alone, 6.6 million meals were distributed last year.
"The Lafayette branch serves 12 parishes from Morgan City to Lake Charles," says Development Manager Mary-Kay Rath. "We serve about 87,000 people. Of that 87,000, 27,000 are children and 13,000 are seniors. It's people you know. It's children, senior citizens, the working poor and it's also people who have physical or mental disabilities."
Rath says the organization focuses on four things: food access, by distributing food through member agencies like Salvation Army and St. Joseph Diner; disaster relief, by providing food and supplies to people during crises; and education and advocacy through programs and fundraising, like the first annual Harvest at Home event happening in Lafayette on April 14.
At the inaugural event sponsored by Raising Cane's, Pizza Hut, Sonic and IberiaBank, local celebrity chef Jeremy Conner of Village Café and POUR will use Louisiana strawberries to bring a farm-to-table meal to the home of hosts Mike and Lea Ann Remondet, where donors will share a meal and discuss ways to fight food insecurity in the community.
"For every $10 we receive, we can provide 28 meals," says Rath. "For Harvest at Home a $500 donation will provide 1,400 meals for families in need here in southwest Louisiana."
Second Harvest distributes a majority of its food through partner agencies.
"That's how we do our food distribution; you won't see people lined up to get their food at our warehouse because we distribute through our community partners," notes Rath. Typically, the member agencies order food from the 24,000-square-foot Second Harvest warehouse, pick it up and distribute directly to clients.
"Most of our food is donated from both public and private sources. Twenty-five percent is USDA commodities," Rath says. "We get 10 to 15 percent from food drives, 25 percent from our retail food rescue program, which is usually high quality produce, dairy or bakery items. The other 30 percent comes from local wholesalers, manufactures and distributors.
"I think a lot of people are surprised that only 10 to 15 percent of our food comes from food drives," adds Rath. "With the hunger problem, we have to constantly be getting food in. We love food drives but we have to look for other resources."
One client of Second Harvest's food distributions, Pam - we've omitted her last name to protect her privacy - says she stands in line once a month at 8 a.m. to receive assistance from a mobile pantry.
When she was diagnosed with Parkinson's about eight years ago, Pam lost her full-time job and had to quit graduate school at UL Lafayette. She went on unemployment and spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital.
"People don't grow up wanting to be poor. I had a great job, then I got sick," she says. Before she heard about Second Harvest, once a month she would get food from the diocese, but because of all her medications, there were a lot of foods she couldn't eat because of high sodium content.
"The people at Second Harvest solicit food from stores," says Pam. "It's different types of food than what other people give out. I hadn't seen that many fresh fruits and fresh vegetables in a long time; but the strength of Second Harvest is not in the food; it's in the people. They go above and beyond in a lot of ways."
The mobile pantry program uses refrigerated trucks to distribute fresh, healthy food to under-served neighborhoods and food deserts - areas where transportation options are few and the nearest grocery store is miles away. Each mobile pantry truck stocks up to 6,000 pounds of food, enough for a three-to-five-day supply for 200 families.
"We have one truck that goes out specifically with just healthy protein and produce," Rath notes. "We have another with a variety of foods on it - non-perishable as well as perishable. We also have one that goes to a school in St. Landry Parish at South Street Elementary that is part of a new pilot program, the first of its kind in South Louisiana.
"We do a distribution twice a month that provides the families of the students at the school with food," continues Rath. "This pilot program was funded from a grant we received from Procter & Gamble and Newman's Own."
In Lafayette, Second Harvest also reaches out to students through two programs: the Backpack program and 9-A-Day the Head Start Way.
The former distributes five-pound backpacks with two cereals, two fruit cups, two proteins, two juices and a milk box that does not need to be refrigerated until it's opened.
These backpacks go to elementary school students in Lafayette, Evangeline, St. Landry, Calcasieu and Iberia parishes who bring them home on Friday and during school holidays to ensure they have something to eat during the weekend or on an extended holiday break.
"We are typically targeting schools that have a high free- or reduced-meal program," says Rath. "What we're finding out is for a lot of the students, Friday may be their last opportunity to eat a full meal before they return to school on Monday."
Once a week in Breaux Bridge at the George Washington Carver Head Start program, about 480 students are given five-pound bags of produce and sent home with instructions on how to prepare the food. The children learn about the fruit or vegetable of the week and sometimes prepare snacks in class.
"The program is working because the kids are increasing their consumption of fruits and vegetables and that's a big deal. Starting them out eating these foods while they are young goes a long way," Rath says. "We know that early childhood hunger is linked to developmental problems, chronic illnesses and obesity in the future. We're just trying to give these kids the best start possible."
To further food education, Second Harvest targets children, families, adults and seniors through a program called Cooking Matters.
A six-week class teaches attendees how to read nutritional labels, how to substitute unhealthy products for healthier options, how to create meal outlines to save money and how to cook a healthy meal for a family of four each week under $10. At the end of the class, the participants take the "Grocery Store Challenge" and are given a gift card to buy ingredients to prepare a healthy meal to feed a family of four for $10 or less.
Second Harvest also has a toll-free public benefits call center at (855) 392-9338. Individuals can call and speak to case managers who provide assistance, whether it's signing up for SNAP benefits, utility assistance or child care assistance.
"For individuals who might be looking for work, it's going to be a lot easier for them without the worry of having to feed their family; to know we can help alleviate their hunger is one less worry," says Rath. "We are building our branch day by day and we're building a great volunteer base."
To support Second Harvest, donations can be made at www.no-hunger.org, non-perishable food items can be brought to the warehouse on 215. E. Pinhook Road, or deposited in the red barrels in the front of Rouses.
Harvest at Home
Monday, April 14
Home of Mike and Lee Ann Remondet
$500 per couple
For tickets call (337) 408-2467