Feeding the Need

A Portsmouth nonprofit feeds souls as well as stomachs during crises at home and around the world.

WHEN A NATURAL DISASTER strikes, most people distractedly watch it unfold on the nightly news. Not Gary LeBlanc. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Portsmouth resident, chef, and former managing director of Hilton hotel properties turned on the TV and saw people he’d worked with. “I’m like, all right, I got to do something. Sending a few bucks isn’t going to cut it. I got to go,” he says. The New Orleans native, who got his start in restaurants under culinary legend Paul Prudhomme, packed his chef’s knives and headed out, bayou bound.

What he saw once on site in a makeshift kitchen was worse than he’d imagined. “I was dismayed by the lack of sanitation. No safety, no time and temperature controls, no passion in the food, no creativity,” he says. But worst of all, “no love.”

“Twelve nights in a row, they opened cans of green beans—and they were bad quality green beans—and scooped the beans out of the can onto a plate. No heat, no salt, no pepper,” remembers LeBlanc. “I’m like, give me some crushed tomatoes and some bacon. I didn’t believe that was the way to feed somebody who had just lost everything.”

So he decided to do something about it.

With nothing but a credit card and his years of kitchen and hotel experience, LeBlanc started Mercy Chefs, a faith-based, nonprofit disaster relief organization with a mission to serve delicious food with dignity. Fifteen years and 10 million meals in 27 states and 10 countries later—funded solely by generous donations from private donors and foundations—that’s exactly what the Portsmouth-based operation has done.

From Katrina-destroyed New Orleans to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, snow-storm devastated Texas, or pandemic-pummeled frontline workers at home in Virginia, if there’s a crisis somewhere, you can bet LeBlanc and his team—including six mobile kitchens—are on their way. Over the past year, that has meant partnering with food distributors and volunteers to supplement the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a big factor in the organization’s enormous growth.

Between emergencies, Mercy Chefs serves at home in Virginia. For the past three years, Mercy Chefs has provided meals to organizations like Park Place School, a private, faith-based educational center for at-risk children grades K-8 in Norfolk. “They struggled for years with food.

They tried to buy it one place, it was too expensive. They tried to buy it somewhere else, it was crummy,” explains LeBlanc. So Mercy Chefs stepped in.

“When our students know that they will be regularly fed excellent, nutritional meals, they are better able to concentrate on their studies,” says Kamilah Bowers, the school’s principal, of the nonprofit’s impact. “Mercy Chefs certainly practices their slogan: feeding the body and soul.”

Last year, Mercy Chefs ramped up its local initiatives to meet the coronavirus crisis. Making hot and frozen meals at its Portsmouth community kitchen, Mercy Chefs partnered with local organizations, including Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, a women’s shelter, and nine local providers who serve home- bound seniors, to feed people in the greater Portsmouth area.

“Gary has not forgotten about home in his quest for international work,” says David McBride, pastor of New Life Church. McBride got to know LeBlanc when Mercy Chefs reached out to use the kitchen in the church’s Ghent location to feed the homeless. The pastor says the shared ministry was a gamechanger for his church’s ability to serve the disenfranchised. “The food is cooked with love, but Gary also wants to make sure that when people eat the food, people can feel the love of God.”

LeBlanc says this urge to feed people in difficult times was learned at the feet of his Louisiana grandmothers. One a classic Cajun cook and the other a more refined New Orleans traditionalist, they used different methods to prepare their meals but taught LeBlanc the same culinary life lesson: Every meal should be made with love.

For Mercy Chefs, that’s meant ditching the traditional model of using donated food in exchange for high-quality ingredients. In addition, Mercy Chefs uses teams of volunteers to operate its mobile and three community kitchens, but insists that they all work under the direction of professional chefs, which means the menus are anything but basic. In Texas this winter, families who’d watched burst pipes destroy everything they owned gathered their strength on herb-roasted chicken with oven-baked potatoes and fresh, hand-cut tomato, cucumber, and onion salads with homemade dressing.

If that sounds like a meal you might enjoy in a respected restaurant, that’s because it is. “Some- body has to walk up to a food trailer and put their hand out and ask for a meal. Not just for them, but for their family. I mean, their kids are watching them,” says LeBlanc. “And there’s that moment that you can continue to take dignity from them or you can be at their level with them and provide hope and comfort.”

But even with the goodwill, LeBlanc admits “I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’re just perpetuating a problem. These people deserve to be hungry.’” To which LeBlanc responds, “Find me an 8-year-old kid that’s done anything in their life to deserve to be hungry.” Then he quietly returns to his work of feeding anyone who needs a meal made with love. MercyChefs.com

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.

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