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Church Canteen Finds that New Orleans Can’t Live on Bread Alone

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ It was about 11 a.m. when the canteen truck loaded with 130 sandwiches, drinks and assorted snacks pulled into the parking lot of the wrecked shopping mall in St. Bernard Parish, propped open its sides and waited for the hungry walk-up traffic to find it. It took […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ It was about 11 a.m. when the canteen truck loaded with 130 sandwiches, drinks and assorted snacks pulled into the parking lot of the wrecked shopping mall in St. Bernard Parish, propped open its sides and waited for the hungry walk-up traffic to find it.

It took only a few minutes.

Local homeowners and relief workers approached Trinity Episcopal Church’s Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck, and by word or gesture asked for a cold drink and a sandwich. Many walked around to the other side to take a few pairs of socks or some free sheets, donated by a volunteer who works for the Marriott hotel chain.

In an hour and 15 minutes, the food was gone.

“It doesn’t take long. Folks get hungry early,” said Cathy Posey, who helps run the volunteer ministry Trinity founded a few months after Hurricane Katrina.

Six days a week for the past 14 months, the canteen truck has handed out free food and supplies to people trying to knit the city back together. Judging by the crowds it attracts, the need is still there.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes frequently visits St. Bernard, and passing motorists have come to know the truck with the ministry’s name and logo stenciled on the side, Posey said.

Dozens came by on a recent Monday: Allen and “Tiny” Landry, both 71 and disabled, rescued off their rooftop in Caernarvon and now living in a trailer, their house bulldozed. Dawn Leonard, 54, a night worker at Wal-Mart who lives in a trailer. And Lou Gioia, 51, sick and disabled, like her husband, Joseph, 53, who found that any little bit helps a family like hers.

The Gioias are living on Social Security. “Your kids, they can only do so much. My son is helping his grandmother at his place,” she said. “So it’s a struggle, more so than people realize. And people like these are helping people like us hang in there.”

Sometimes a child was in tow. Often, when Hispanic workers approached, communication was by way of gestures and nods: peanut butter or turkey sandwich? Iced tea or water? Chips? Cookies? Socks or linens?

The truck always carries food. What else gets loaded is the product of luck or divine providence. It could be anything, Posey said.

“I’m always surprised. One day I got to the office and there were 30 coats to be given away.”

In Birmingham, Ala., Amanda Jones, stepdaughter of Trinity volunteer Diane Plauche, recently threw a birthday party for her 2-year-old daughter. Don’t bring presents, Jones told the other mothers. Bring books. And so dozens of books for all ages were shipped to New Orleans and loaded on the canteen truck for distribution.

On Monday, the mobile kitchen coincidentally parked near an Episcopal-sponsored RV where a team of church volunteers from Christ Church in Grosse Pointe, Mich., dispensed plastic bags filled with paper products, cleaning supplies and other household commodities to passing motorists.

The Michigan volunteers manning the RV had sent $17,000 to Trinity Episcopal 18 months ago to help run the canteen truck _ a standard pickup fitted with a brushed stainless steel storage area with flip-up sides.

Later the Christ Church congregation of 1,600 sent a tractor-trailer loaded with basic kitchen start-up supplies into the storm zone, and they’ve entered into a long-term partnership with Trinity in New Orleans.

“We said we’d be here for the long haul,” said the Rev. David Dieter, senior associate rector at the church.

The Mobile Loaves and Fishes ministry came to New Orleans from Austin, Texas, where it is used as an ecumenical, faith-based ministry to the city’s homeless. Six trucks supported by more than 8,500 volunteers circulate around the city dispensing food, clothing, companionship and other aid to Austin’s street people.

In the first weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Austin sent trucks to New Orleans loaded with food, gasoline and other relief supplies.

One day shortly after the storm, Episcopal Bishop Charles Jenkins happened upon the crew of one truck grilling free hamburgers. Jenkins fell into conversation with the cook, liked what he heard about the ministry, and set in motion plans to bring the ministry to New Orleans under Trinity’s wing. It’s financed by donations like those from Michigan, with other relief coming from the local Episcopal diocese and the national church, Posey said.

Since then, Trinity has built a volunteer pool of 200 people to prepare food and run the truck each day, Posey said.

Each morning a small team arrives, makes up to a couple hundred sandwiches and loads them onto the truck with drinks, snacks and whatever other charitable cargo is at hand.

Often they’ll go feed other volunteers at fixed sites: college kids and vacationers building houses for Habitat for Humanity, or relief workers at an ACORN project, or gutting teams dispatched around the city by Catholic Charities.

They figure they routinely distribute 1,800 meals a month, Posey said. And rarely, she believes, do people accept the proffered gifts unless they need them.

“People generally are very gracious,” she said. “They take only what they need and tell us to give the rest to somebody else.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

KRE/LF END NOLAN

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