Locals Helping Locals
“I have a more optimistic view than many people,” says Natalie Jayroe, the president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting hunger in South Louisiana. “I get to witness the generosity of the community all the time, every single day.” Second Harvest collects and distributes donated food to community members in need.
She and I are walking through their immaculate, 200,000-square-foot facility located in an industrial part of Elmwood, Louisiana. Forklifts zip around us between countless cargo pallets piled with 3 million pounds of food — everything from cereal boxes to salad dressing. The scale of the operation is breathtaking, more akin to a NASA center than the neighborhood soup kitchen. And they need every bit of that space. One out of every seven Louisianans are at risk for hunger, and one in five children. Louisiana is one of the most food-insecure states in the country, with one of the highest rates of food insecurity for seniors. “So, our work is cut out for us,” Jayroe says.
The story of Second Harvest began in 1982, when Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, Bishop Roger P. Morin and Gregory Ben Johnson, director of the Social Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, started the organization as a nonsectarian endeavor and, in doing so, established the first food bank in the state of Louisiana.
“We were founded by the Catholic Church as an organization that served all people in need,” Jayroe explains. “I think that was a brilliant decision on their part. It allowed Second Harvest to be seen as this entity that was for the entire community.” By July of the following year, the food bank was already distributing food to 23 faith-based and nonprofit partners. In 1985, it became a fully accredited member of what would later be called Feeding America. As a result, Second Harvest could receive large donations from across the country, and coordinate with other food banks nationally to exchange best practices and disaster responses.
Over time, Second Harvest has come to do more and more work across the southern part of the state. Their trucks have for years rolled to Lafayette, Lake Charles, Houma and Thibodaux. Today, they have, or are building, warehouses in those areas, allowing volunteers to collect more local food donations and move quickly to serve the people of those communities. “We can bring in the various programs that we offer in addition to food distribution, whether it’s our mobile market, our school pantries, our after-school and summer feeding programs, or our senior meal programs,” says Jayroe.
The organization and its volunteers spearhead the battle against hunger in South Louisiana by providing not just food but also advocacy, education and post-disaster support through a vast network of over 700 community partners and programs. Over the years, it has grown to provide more than 50 million meals annually to those in need. Its mission encompasses food distribution programs, community kitchen meal service, nutrition education and public benefits assistance, aiming to create pathways out of poverty for the residents of South Louisiana.
The remarkable journey of Second Harvest reflects Louisiana’s needs and heart. By being community-based, it is able to help people at the granular level. They look parish-by-parish, at what they call the “missing meals”: the number of meals that families cannot afford to provide for themselves even after federal assistance.
“In every parish, we know there are a certain number of million missing meals. We base our work on trying to fill that need, trying to close that gap, and ensure that there’s enough food going into each parish to reach all people that are hungry.” And hunger doesn’t look the same everywhere, Jayroe adds. “You could have a senior that’s homebound. How do we reach that person? We have children that we go to through our school pantries. You have cancer patients that need a box of fresh food after they get their chemotherapy. So how do we do things that ensure we’re reaching vulnerable people where they can most take advantage of the nutritious food that we have to offer them?”
The organization’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 proved defining moments. The disasters displaced over a million people from their homes and devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Within two days of Katrina’s landfall, Second Harvest and its volunteers regrouped in Baton Rouge and, with the support Feeding America and food bank volunteers nationwide, they escalated operations to an unprecedented scale. By September 2005, Second Harvest had become the largest food bank in the history of the world. In those critical two years, Second Harvest distributed more than 75 million pounds of food.
Presently, they distribute more than 40 million pounds of food annually. “Rouses Markets is a big part of the reason we can be successful, because three-quarters of our food gets donated from private sources like the retailers.” The remaining 25% comes from the organization’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through their Emergency Food Assistance Program.
Walking through the facility, Jayroe brings me to a cavernous, 20,000-square-foot freezer. “It’s jam-packed,” she says. Food banks like Second Harvest have changed mightily in the last 15 years, adapting to the changing food industry. “When the food bank started over 40 years ago, we were primarily big dry warehouses, and we were getting mostly manufacturing overruns,” she explains. This meant cookies, crackers, cereal, candy — things that don’t perish. “That was great, but not necessarily the most nutritious food.” When the food industry reengineered itself for just-in-time ordering — that is, a streamlined inventory system where shelves are monitored and restocked only as needed — there were fewer available nonperishables for food banks. As that happened, however, perishable — and oftentimes much more nutritious — food was in greater supply. “These were things that were no longer marketable, but were still consumable, that so many of our retailers had to throw away.” Second Harvest invested in refrigerated trucks, and built bigger freezers and coolers to take advantage of an incredible new opportunity.
Perishable donations grew quickly, to around 40% of the donated food that Second Harvest distributed. “For the retailers, it was a way to dispose of that food that they couldn’t market anymore without having to pay to put it into the landfill. So, it became a win-win. That’s so much of what I think food banking is. It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the government, and it’s good for the people that we’re serving.”
The numbers bear this out. Second Harvest works with more than 700 partners. In its first four years, it distributed 4 million pounds of food. In the four-year interval from 2017 to 2021, it distributed 226 million.
In 2022 — its 40th anniversary — Second Harvest opened a community kitchen in Lake Charles and, with support from Gayle Benson, renovated the Elmwood facility, including installing air conditioning, which was a great boon for volunteers. Its portfolio of programs includes food access: distribution of food, whether through mobile pantries or outreach; senior hunger, including meals and deliveries; disaster relief; food systems such as their food desert initiative in Lafayette and grower and community garden programs; equity, such as mobile markets and development programs to solve food access issues; and wellness: how to eat right.
Second Harvest is not alone in its efforts. Theodore, Alabama-based Feeding the Gulf Coast is a crucial organization combating food insecurity in 24 counties in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, the latter of which is the hungriest state in the country.
“Our vision is a hunger-free Gulf Coast, and our mission is providing access to nutrition for folks facing systemic hunger caused by various reasons, from disasters to health issues to systemic issues,” says Michael Ledger, the organization’s president and CEO.
Feeding the Gulf Coast and its staff and volunteers work to find partners in brick-and-mortar food pantries and mobile pantries, as well as other partners. They build networks of food assistance so that people facing hardships have direct access to nutrition. The other half of their work is collecting food, so that when people come for support, they have what they need to get through trying times. Additionally, the organization focuses on child nutrition: ensuring kids don’t go home to empty cabinets on weekends. Schools and after-school sites identify the most vulnerable children and send them home with food for the weekend to ensure they are taken care of.
The 2020s have presented huge and unprecedented challenges for Feed the Gulf Coast. “The need just exploded,” says Ledger. “During COVID, there were lines of cars filling entire parking lots at football stadiums, with people waiting for hours for food.” At the same time, the places the group serves faced multiple hurricanes — Sally, Zeta, Ida — and tornadoes in between. “These disasters were stacked on top of each other. Only now have we transitioned into what we call the post-COVID era, and with it, inflation has emerged as a significant hurdle.”
Expenses these days are adding up to sums larger than many people are able to afford. “Food security is on a continuum. There are those in dire situations, but also folks who are managing most of the time until something happens: a medical emergency, inflation or a car breaking down. They are then faced with hard choices — especially if they are taking care of children and seniors. It doesn’t take much for people to find themselves in situations they never dreamt they would be in.”
He points to one woman who was in the third trimester of her pregnancy, told by her doctor that, due to complications, she could no longer work. She did not qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides workers with job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons, and extends health insurance coverage. “She found herself in a pantry for the first time in her life, bringing home food for her daughter,” says Ledger. Months later, she returned to the pantry to say thank you, and to let them know that she was back at work, that her baby was healthy, and that she no longer needed food assistance. “We see people in all kinds of situations. More folks are susceptible than ever before.”
For someone suddenly in a situation where they need help, Ledger suggests visiting the Feeding the Gulf Coast website, which can direct individuals to mobile services and pantries based on ZIP code. Volunteers there can also help those in need sign up for SNAP benefits. But whether someone qualifies for that or not, the pantries are there to help. “You can show up at a pantry location, no questions asked,” says Ledger. “You don’t need to bring anything with you.” Certain federal programs and resources are accessible with minimal to no paperwork.
“Our goal is to ensure anyone can get access to food without the need to prove their situation,” he says. “Anyone is welcome to seek assistance.”
Meanwhile in Louisiana, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank has operated hunger and relief organizations since 1984. Last year it gave away more than 10 million pounds of food to over one hundred partners working the frontlines in food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, child care centers and senior centers. “Our programs are aimed at meeting individuals, children and families where they are by providing food assistance and educational support to improve their position in life long term,” said Mike Manning, the organization’s president and CEO.
Doing so, he adds, is a community-wide effort. “Louisiana leads the country in both child and senior hunger. In our 11-parish service area, one in six children are food insecure, meaning over 35,000 children in our community are not able to access three meals a day. Hunger is something we can address. It is curable, but it takes all of us to make it happen.”
Rouses Markets is doing its part in the fight against hunger through its Food Bank Assistance Program — a year-round operation across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that provides meals to those facing food insecurity. With the support of generous customers and vendor partners, the program has achieved a remarkable milestone, donating almost 50 million meals to local communities since its inception.
The program’s formula is simple and effective: Rouses collects both nonperishable food items and monetary donations at stores. Every contribution, whether a can of beans or a dollar bill, is funneled right back into the community. The collected resources bolster the operations of local food banks, food pantries and community refrigerators spread across the three states, creating a network of support for individuals and families grappling with hunger.
Participating is made easy for the public. A visit to a Rouses store presents two straightforward options: Either scan a coupon at the register to add a small donation to your bill, or choose to purchase a pre-packed Brown Bag filled with canned goods for donation. The process is designed with the regular shopping experience in mind, making charity a simple choice.
The food banks are in direct liaison with Rouses stores, ensuring a steady flow of collected goods towards those in need. Hunger relief is embedded in the business ethos of Rouses Markets, and also appears through various fundraising initiatives, such as Frozen Food Month, Ice Cream Month and Family Meals Month. Through these campaigns, Rouses Markets keeps food and funds flowing to the frontlines of the battle against hunger.
According to Manning, Rouses is “very generous in providing unpurchased food resources to make sure food does not go to waste. We would not be able to reach as many families as we do without their support.”
These goods flowing from Rouses are found, among many other places, at a 17,000-square-foot warehouse in the heart of Rouses country, on S. Hollywood Rd. in Houma, which was opened recently by Second Harvest and the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux and is set to begin operations soon. They built it to manage more fresh food and pantry stables than ever before for Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Mary parishes, and Grand Isle. In addition, volunteers will use a 3,400-square-foot kitchen to prepare as many as 3,000 meals per day — an urgent need in the Bayou region, where 10,000 children and 20,000 adults face hunger.
The work doesn’t stop there. Rouses Markets, the official supermarket of the New Orleans Saints, has teamed up with the black and gold to run a community program to help address food insecurity in the city. The Tackle Hunger initiative brings together Saints players and fans through food drives. With support from such organizations as the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Tackle Hunger reflects a broader collaborative effort, blending sports, community engagement and corporate responsibility to mitigate hunger and foster communal support during challenging times.
Rouses’ efforts, and those of the community, are not misplaced. The 18-bay loading dock of the Second Harvest facility could rival any major warehouse program in the world. As we walk through it, Jayroe shows me the large pallets of dry product being staged for the next morning’s run. Turnaround happens quickly. The trucks arrive each morning at 5:30, and by 7:30, are on the roads. The facility meanwhile receives eight truckloads or so of food per day. Everything is tracked and organized with a barcode management system. The disaster-prone community counts on the donations coming in and going out.
But those disasters aren’t limited to hurricanes. “We started to talk about hunger as an everyday disaster, whether it affects a single child or an entire community affected by storms or downturns,” says Jayroe. “And so we ask, what can Second Harvest do best? We look at what we’ve got. We have capacity. We have a warehouse. We have freezers, coolers, kitchens. We have trucks. So how do we make sure that we’re using this capacity that we have, as completely as we possibly can, to strengthen communities? We are not thinking about it just in terms of how many pounds of food we can put out. We are asking who we can partner with that helps build resilience throughout South Louisiana.”
Its partnership with Feeding America, the largest nonprofit network in the entire country, has been invaluable. The group is an umbrella for 200 food banks around the country. “The great thing about the Feeding America network is that it’s very grassroots driven,” says Jayroe. All the network’s big ideas and programs come from the field, and for things that can be replicated, Second Harvest and its myriad nationwide analogues facilitate the sharing of best practices, without restricting affiliate independence.
“We have a saying in our world,” Jayroe says. “You see one food bank, you’ve seen one food bank.” Second Harvest’s response to Ida or Laura, is necessarily much different from what food banks in California, responding to the wildfires, are up against. Even locally, the needs of Lake Charles and New Orleans, rural and urban, are entirely different.
To that end, Second Harvest works with the emergency management departments across its 23 civil parishes. During times of crisis, it coordinates its relief efforts with the Salvation Army and other aid organizations. “We really work well together. We hear about needs and we divide up responsibilities so we’re not duplicating efforts, or sending all the food to the same place when so many other neighbors need some help as well.”
Near the entrance of the facility, Jayroe and I come to a staging area with long stainless-steel tables. About 25 volunteers, mostly high school or college age, are moving quickly, sorting, filling and weighing bags of cereal. They are moving to the beat of a song playing on a sound system. “I can always tell the age of the volunteers by the soundtrack,” Jayroe says with a laugh. By the end of the day, they will have packed tens of thousands of pounds of food — finding out exactly how much is part of the fun. A member of the Second Harvest team will reveal the number before they go. “When you volunteer here, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something.” Elsewhere, another 25 volunteers are working in a kitchen to prepare hot lunches for the community. “A lot of them are regulars. Many are retired, but some are school kids. They’re from all walks of life. They’re very different from each other, but they come together and they pack meals for seniors or meals for kids. And they have fun doing it.”
That spirit, says Jayroe, is why Second Harvest succeeds. It is a conduit for the community’s generosity. “Caring is so important. When you start to divide from each other, you forget that this is us — that we’re all the same. One of the things at Second Harvest we try to do is break down those barriers. One out of seven people at risk for hunger? That means you know these folks. You know the seniors using the food banks. You know the kids that go to school without a healthy breakfast. You know them. We try to kind of break down that division between people, because once you do that, then it just becomes one community helping each other.”