A chef’s Brief But Spectacular take on using food to create hope after disasters

As founder of Mercy Chefs, Gary LeBlanc and his team have served more than 18 million meals to people affected by disasters, including to those impacted by the tornadoes that tore through the South and Midwest United States earlier this month. In this Brief But Spectacular take, he talks about how food does more than nourish the body— it can create hope.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we turn to one group that responds to natural disasters here in the U.S. and around the world using food.

    As founder of Mercy Chefs, Gary LeBlanc and his team have served more than 18 million meals to people affected by disasters, including to those impacted by the tornadoes that tore through the South and the Midwest earlier this month.

    In this Brief But Spectacular take, he talks about how food does more than nourish the body. It can create hope.

  • Gary LeBlanc, Founder, Mercy Chefs:

    Before Hurricane Katrina, I had never considered doing volunteer work or working in disaster relief. It wasn't something I ever even thought of.

    I was living comfortably in Virginia, and Katrina slams into 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.

    I watched people standing on bridges waiting to be evacuated and began to recognize faces of people that I had worked with. And I was compelled to go down and do something. So, I went back to New Orleans and I did the only thing that I knew how to do that could contribute or help in that time. And that was cook for people.

    You know, I did my time in New Orleans after Katrina, and I cooked the very best meals that I could, but I'm also a student of anything that I do. And when I got home, I began to think about the food that I saw served. And, quite honestly, I got angry.

    Now, the food that was served kept people alive, but I think there's more that needs to be done in a disaster. And that's to create hope. I was taught that food is love, and anything you serve should have that love in it.

    I also thought that sanitation and food safety and time and temperature controls could be part of everything that was done. Professional acumen needed to be brought to mass feeding in the aftermath of disaster. And that anger about what I saw other people serve was the genesis of Mercy Chefs.

    Mercy Chefs has served over 18.5 million meals. If it's a major disaster, Mercy Chefs has been there. We have been in tornadoes. We have been in wildfires. We have been in earthquakes. We have been in floods. We have been in hurricanes. We have been in situations where there was civil unrest or an industrial explosion.

    We put our love, we put our heart and soul into every meal that we create. But there are those meals that we have done that people are startled by. We had the opportunity while we were just in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida we were able to do steak dinners two different nights.

    And the car line is coming through. And we're handing the bags of groceries through your window to folks. And they'd go to pull away. And they're always curious, what's for dinner tonight? And we had multiple cars that would see the steak in there. They'd stopped the car and they put it in park. They leap out the car and they would run back and hug somebody. They just couldn't believe that disaster food was a steak.

    I think the most important thing for people that want to become involved, people that are moved to help their neighbors is to just start. Step in at the first opportunity, be bold, be fearless and be fully committed, but just start.

    My name is Gary LeBlanc, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on food is love.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a wonderful story. And you can — and it's real life.

    And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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