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The aromas of roasting meat and simmering gravy spreading through the kitchen were hearty and homey. But the pace around the long, bright, crowded room was frenetic.
The plates kept coming as fast as hands could move them off two parallel assembly lines, each staffed by volunteers working elbow to elbow. Cooks kept muscling chest-sized pans of hot food to the line to fill more plates. Another volunteer wheeled boxy carts piled with hundreds of servings toward the waiting vans just outside, already pointed towards the street and ready to go.
This is the Community Kitchen at Second Harvest Food Bank, and watching it work right now means moving constantly to keep out of the way of all its clicking parts.
This kitchen is always busy preparing hot meals for people across the region. Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, it is in overdrive.
The man in charge of this giant cooking operation, executive chef Matthew Taylor, knows the pace will not slacken anytime soon.
“We can’t stop,” Taylor said. “We have to make sure we’re fulfilling our mission and that people are being fed.”
While New Orleans itself is largely moving on from Ida, Second Harvest serves people in 23 parishes. The map of its service area is a tapestry of the state’s coastal community, always the most vulnerable to storms. It includes most of the parishes severely impacted by Ida, where the need for meals of the sort produced here is critical.
The community kitchen is just one part of Second Harvest, built in one corner of the massive warehouse in Elmwood where the agency is based. The loading docks at that warehouse are busy, as tractor trailers arrive with pallets of food, water and other essential supplies. Since Ida, the food bank has distributed some 1.7 million pounds of this essential help.
Taylor’s kitchen produced more than 32,000 meals in the first 11 days after the storm, and it has ramped up to making between 6,000 and 7,000 meals a day now.
But the measure of the Community Kitchen’s impact goes beyond the numbers served, said Second Harvest executive director Natalie Jayroe.
“For someone who is not able to cook in their home, that hot meal is so important,” Jayroe said. “It’s giving people something that provides comfort as well as nutrition for the long haul of recovery.”
Menu with a mission
Depending on where the meals are headed and what’s needed, the Community Kitchen makes boxed sandwich lunches or hot, home-style meals in individual, sealed divider trays. Taylor makes sure these are different from day to day, knowing that many of the people getting them will need them daily for some time.
Then there are the large, batched meals to be plated and served on site. One day last week it was shrimp Creole with rice and garlic bread and mixed vegetables. Another day it was jambalaya with grilled chicken. These are meals of local flavor and tradition that resonate when people need anchors back to normalcy.
“We put a lot of heart into the food we’re providing,” Taylor said. “It’s not just food, it’s a meal for people when they really need it.”
Taylor started this job just four months earlier. But he has been cooking for a living since he was a teenager. Now 36, he’s been banquet chef or executive chef at a progression of New Orleans-area hotels.
The Second Harvest Community Kitchen is very different from those commercial operations, with its mix of staff and volunteers and its mandate to provide as much for others as possible with the resources available.
What’s unchanged is the underlying motivation that drew Taylor to the field in the first place.
“It’s my passion for serving the people,” he said. “All I wanted to do in my life was be a chef. My uncle was a chef. I saw what he did. I never wanted any other career and I never looked back.”
Timing is everything
On one afternoon last week, his staff and volunteers were preparing a batch of 1,000 meals for a community feeding site in Houma, and another 100 bound for National Guard personnel stationed nearby in Metairie. More would go to senior centers, a feeding site in hard-hit Lafitte and linemen from out of town now working to repair the power grid.
This kitchen’s meals are distributed by municipal governments, community groups and a network of many partner agencies across the region.
The Community Kitchen works with different shifts of volunteers to keep the pace up through busy days. The work starts early, with cooking underway by 7 a.m., to be able to serve people at many different sites around the area by the accustomed meal times.
By late afternoon the focus has shifted to planning the next day, as Taylor considers his game plan, his resources and the requests coming in. This is where running the kitchen becomes a question of logistics and timing.
“In this situation, we can’t guess. I can’t afford to just hope I’ll be able to get this number of meals out of what we have available,” he said.
Leaving nothing to chance has also meant the chef earned certification to operate a forklift, so he can help the warehouse team move inventory when time is tight.
“If I get a delivery today, it can be a meal for someone tomorrow,” he said.
Second Harvest was already operating in high gear before Ida, with demand spurred by the pandemic and the ongoing needs of southwest Louisiana communities devastated by last year’s hurricanes.
Food bank staffers have been working every day since Ida, but they’re not alone. Volunteers are always part of the operation, and, working in different shifts, they enable the big lift of the food bank’s disaster response.
Kitchen volunteers don’t need culinary experience, but volunteer coordinator Vanessa Cave-Herazo said the one quality that’s invaluable is caring.
“It’s the willingness to help others, coming in with a great attitude about serving others,” she said.
One steadfast example is volunteer Jackie Appleton, a constant presence in the Community Kitchen through the pandemic. She’s been cooking here every day since Ida. Her job is to prepare meals for the staff and other volunteers, serving the people who are serving others here.
She is driven by her Catholic faith, she said one morning while cooking a batch of yellow squash for the upcoming lunch.
“There’s a lot of confidence that they’ve placed in me for this work,” Appleton said. “God has blessed my life so much, and it’s a blessing to do what we do.”
For volunteer information at Second Harvest, see no-hunger.org/volunteer/.
For food assistance, see no-hunger.org/foodassistance/.
To contribute, see no-hunger.org.
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