AARP Eye Center
AARP Virginia is proud to host Mercy Chefs throughout September to present the “Dinner in a SNAP” program in support of Hunger Action Month, a month dedicated to increasing national awareness of hunger across America.
Mercy Chefs, based in Portsmouth, is a faith-based, non-profit disaster and humanitarian relief organization which provides professionally prepared, restaurant-quality meals to victims, volunteers, and first responders when natural disasters and national emergencies strike.
Gary LeBlanc and his wife, Ann, founded Mercy Chefs in 2006 after the devastation Hurricane Katrina left on Gary’s hometown of New Orleans. “I have a grandmother that was evacuated and fell and broke a hip. I lost her a few months later. My daughter had a home with seven feet of water inside for five weeks,” Gary said.
While watching television, he saw people standing on bridges waiting to be evacuated and began recognizing faces of people he had worked with. “I went back to New Orleans and did the only thing that I knew how to do and that was cook for people.
“In Cajun culture, food is love,” Gary said.
He grew up watching his Cajun grandmothers cook for every occasion. The contrast between his childhood experience and the food being served to the victims of Hurricane Katrina shocked him.
“There was no love or passion being put into the meals. Sanitation standards were not being followed. It was all about fast, cheap and mass quantity,” he remembered.
Gary, who had worked in the hotel restaurant industry for 20 years, stayed in New Orleans for two weeks helping cook for Katrina victims and then returned home to Virginia. But he was restless, unable to shake the feeling that something greater needed to be done.
“I was compelled to do something to help. And all I could think to do was what I had seen my grandmothers do my whole life. They fed people,” he explained.
Less than a year later, Mercy Chefs was born. Since its inception, the non-profit has fed more than 25 million people and is fully funded by private donors with a current operating budget of $14 million.
In addition to deploying to national disasters and emergencies across the country, Mercy Chefs also works a great deal with communities whose members are food insufficient. With food prices rising amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mercy Chefs was eager to teach people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) how to cook delicious and nutritious meals on a budget.
The “Dinner in a SNAP” series with AARP started when Gary’s son, Raymond, attended a recent Chamber of Commerce event in Richmond and met an AARP member who had heard about Mercy Chefs’ community kitchen model and education programs and suggested the idea of putting that content in a livestream format.
“And from that, the ‘Dinner in a SNAP’ idea was born,” Raymond said. While the live classes are geared toward those enrolled in the SNAP program, anyone can participate and strengthen their cooking skills.
The cooking classes are held Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Eastern on Zoom and run for approximately 45 to 60 minutes. Professional chefs cook in their own kitchens and create a wide variety of dishes, showing all ingredients and kitchen tools needed, sanitation handling, how to prep the food and then how to properly cook the meal. A different dish is made each week. At the end, the participants can ask the chef questions.
Hunger Action Month was established by Feeding America in 2008 as a nationwide push to get more people involved in the hunger crisis. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, in 2023 there are 41.2 million people, or one in eight Americans, enrolled in SNAP. In Virginia, almost 10% of residents receive SNAP benefits.
Gary said one of the most gratifying parts of what he does is watch the people who come through the car line to receive a boxed meal pull away and then moments later put their car in park, get out, and come rushing back to the workers handing out the meals to hug them. “They just couldn’t believe disaster food could be a steak,” he said.
Mercy Chefs operates with the assistance of thousands of volunteers who want to help neighbors in need. “Our volunteers are truly the backbone of our organization,” Raymond explained. Individuals, businesses, community groups, and church congregations can each partner with Mercy Chefs by reaching out through their website or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The public is invited to participate in this series of free cooking demonstration classes. You do not have to be an AARP member to attend, however, registration is required.