Custom Ford Transit serves professionally-prepared meals to victims, volunteers and first responders in natural disasters
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Gary LeBlanc knows how to crank out nutritious, quality meals with a professional touch. He's been doing it for 35 years. When Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown of New Orleans, he was heartbroken, but inspired to act. Gary offered his services as a volunteer chef, but the quality of food being offered was disappointing. He knew he could do better.
Gary founded Mercy Chefs, a faith-based, nonprofit disaster relief organization that serves professionally prepared meals for victims, volunteers and first responders in national emergencies and natural disasters. Headquartered in Portsmouth, Virginia, Mercy Chefs has served people in 23 states and 8 countries, while responding to more than 120 disasters. Over the past 13 years, Gary and his team have prepared more than two million meals with the help of 6,000 community volunteers. In 2018, Mercy Chefs was awarded a customized, high-roof, diesel powered Ford Transit Cargo van in the Ford Disaster Relief Mobility Challenge. When the call comes in for help, Gary and Mercy Chefs will be ready for the challenge.
"We usually deploy an advance team before a storm we can predict, a hurricane. We'll get on the ground and start making our connections and setting up things should the worst happen. For tornadoes, fires and floods we are an immediate responder and will usually get in within 24 to 36 hours, get our kitchen set up and start feeding. We service victims, volunteers and first responders with high-quality chef prepared meals. We do this all over the country."
How does the new Ford Transit help you and your mission?
"The Transit is a mobile distribution vehicle. That's what we call it. It's part of our first response and will move around based on the disaster. It's one of our deployment vehicles, deployed with a refrigerated truck and one of our mobile kitchens at the command post. We always cookout at the site where we're providing relief and over the last year, we've developed a hub and spoke pattern where we cook in a central location and serve. Then, we'll also have remote locations around us. And this van is the life blood of that. We'll load it with hot boxes and insulated carriers with food and a popup tent and other items we need to serve. During Hurricane Michael (2018) in Panama City, Florida, we sent meals to five remote locations. We realized an efficient distribution method was needed for us, and pickups and cars were not the answer. We rented a Ford high-roof Transit and it worked out well for us. When we saw the opportunity to apply for the grant, we did."
How is the van used when not deployed for a disaster?
"We don't like to leave things to sit idle, so we've been able to use it for our childhood nutrition programs when we're not responding to a disaster. We have a real focus on childhood hunger issues here in the U.S. It becomes that delivery vehicle from a community kitchen to the surrounding areas. We can get right to the heart of the need in a very effective and professional manner. We've used it to practice and rehearse our distribution system in Florida and it's working out amazingly well. It's a great truck. I couldn't believe the highway performance. Really nice."
How important is support from Ford and other companies, and the community?
"It's everything to us. We're a donor-funded, corporate-funded, nonprofit. We could have worked for years and years to save the money to buy a van like this, but having it awarded to us allows us to put the resources back into groceries or response or staffing. And for it to be a product like the Transit, it's incredible. It gives us the ability to do things we wouldn't be able to do otherwise. We're using our mobility vehicle as a model of mobile distribution, something we can show other people and replicate, and make a difference in their communities."
How did you get into nonprofit work?
"I'm a career hotel/restaurant guy. I was living in Virginia when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I decided I needed to do something. As a little boy in New Orleans, I'd always see my grandmothers in happy times or sad times, they cooked. And I went down and volunteered with a bunch of other organizations as a chef. Everybody was doing all they could, but there was no professional acumen. There was no love in the food. I thought there was a better way to do food service for people who had just lost everything and were facing a tragic situation. I believed it could be done professionally with all the proper controls in place and with highly qualified professional chefs. A year after Katrina we founded Mercy Chefs."
What does success look like day to day, week to week?
"One is a rapid response, being able to get into a disaster right along with search and rescue teams and other first responders, being able to serve them. They're probably one of the most overlooked and underserviced groups out there. These are the people who get the first three or four days on station with no sleep and nothing to eat. We have a big responsibility to feed those first responders right from the outset. And so getting in quickly is a success for us. The other thing is just meeting the need, whether its 4,000 meals a day or 14,000 meals a day, being able to pump out that high-quality hand crafted food."
What do you mean by high-quality hand crafted food?
"Comfort food. We find that folks really want something familiar. Instead of sandwiches or a bag of chips, we're doing mashed potatoes and meat loaf, fresh green beans, and we always try to work in a green salad and a roll. We have a couple of incredible pastry chefs that work with us, so we always have surprising and very high-quality desserts in our dinners."
There must be a lot of stories that really touch you?
"There are hundreds of stories. The look on somebody's face when they're opening a little Styrofoam box expecting a cold sandwich or cold hot dog and they see shepherd's pie or macaroni and cheese that was handmade, that love and craft we put into food. To see their face light up. We have people who were trapped in homes after storms three or four days, their car is damaged, they're elderly and they're starting to have dietary issues, blood sugar issues. They literally tell us that our meals saved their lives. It's very humbling. You realize that a hot meal in the aftermath of a disaster can come from somebody. We always say that something amazing happens over a shared meal. We did it as family and friends, and we know what that means. And to go into a disaster area where people have lost everything and serve that quality meal it brings a sense of normalcy and hope that things are going to be better."
How was the transition from for-profit work to nonprofit?
"There's nothing as rewarding as what I get to do now. The jump from being a high performer in a for-profit world and jumping into a nonprofit world was a big jump. But we were fortunate. My wife and family were all behind it. So we were able to make the proper adjustments. I wouldn't trade it for the world. This is what I was wired to do. A totally different sense of satisfaction. Just to think somebody with a food and beverage background is doing something like I get to do is amazing.
For more information on Mercy Chefs visit https://mercychefs.com/.