| Pensacola News Journal
Mashed potatoes with butter, cheese and a lot of love.
That’s what Mercy Chefs’ Molly MacDonald thinks many people need after a natural disaster like Hurricane Sally.
And that is what Mercy Chefs have given to Pensacola residents, through more than 25,000 individual meals prepared and handed out since Sept. 18, each a warm, weighty take out container passed into the hands of neighbors in need.
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Thursday marked the nonprofit’s final day in Pensacola, where they based two kitchen trucks, two refrigerator trucks and a smoker in Brownsville to serve two meals a day. By noon Thursday, volunteers from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos had passed out more than 600 meals already.
“Some of these people have been living off of canned goods for days,” said MacDonald, volunteer coordinator for Mercy Chefs. “They’ve had their power out. For them to get a hot meal – a hot piece of pork, mashed potatoes that were made with love and butter and cheese, succotash – that’s comfort right there. That is love. A lot can be shared over a hot meal. It means the world to someone.
Professional chef Gary LeBlanc founded the nonprofit organization in 2006, after watching the impact of Hurricane Katrina on his hometown of New Orleans. The nonprofit is based out of Virginia, but crews are frequently on the road as the need calls. As Hurricane Sally turned toward Pensacola last week, a team wrapping up a job in Lake Charles, Louisiana, knew they needed to get to Florida.
MacDonald said five staffers and their trucks arrived late in the day Sept. 17 – the day after Hurricane Sally made landfall – and spent the following day scouting out potential sites before they landed in Brownsville. On the first day, the team worked alongside a National Guard operation passing out much-needed water, ice and MREs.
Allison Huskey and her husband were in line the first day, expecting to pick up some MREs and ice. With a multi-day power outage, the couple lost all the food they had in the house.
“We had no way to cook and there was no way to prepare for this storm because it moved its path so quickly,” Huskey said. “We were working so hard in the yard to clean up and a hot meal meant everything.”
Huskey returned several days in a row, touched that the meals weren’t just filling but of good quality.
“The meals were truly delicious – the flavor was so good – you could tell it was quality ingredients,” Huskey said. “They truly tasted like they were made with love and with prayers said for us.”
Lisa Saylor, the team’s director of disaster relief and long-term recovery, said the logistics of Mercy Chefs’ operations require constant management.
“It’s definitely an ever-changing game,” Saylor said. “The numbers are very fluid. You have to be prepared for just about any circumstances. It’s not unusual to start your day thinking you’re cooking for 2,000 and end up cooking for 10,000.”
In addition to the staff on the ground, local churches and other groups have provided volunteers through the last week. MacDonald said they could use up to 75 every day, though it was usually close to 20 volunteers who helped prep food and fill to-go containers.
Saylor has been with Mercy Chefs for eight years, but she said Thursday it’s never easy to leave a city in need after they’ve served its residents.
“We generally see some need that we leave behind,” Saylor said. “We’re the sprinting pack. The marathon runners come in behind us. Sometimes it’s hard to be the sprinter because you’re out the door a little quick.”
Despite exhausting circumstances, MacDonald said staff, volunteers and diners alike have been touched by each meal prepared over the last week.
“That plate represents a person,” MacDonald said. “It represents a story. Each one of these stories is completely different, they’re all going all over. It’s a reminder when you’re prepping those potatoes, chopping them up, prepping the succotash, scooping the cake out of the plan – that is for someone who needs it. Someone who needs some love, who needs some encouragement.”