Nonprofit provides food for Obici workers

Published 9:16 pm Thursday, January 14, 2021

A disaster relief nonprofit has adapted from serving those impacted by tornadoes and hurricanes to those affected by a pandemic.

Mercy Chefs gave meals to the frontline healthcare providers at Sentara Obici Hospital on Jan. 11. Mercy Chefs is a nonprofit out of Portsmouth that started 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina devastated Gary LeBlanc’s hometown, New Orleans. After volunteering for a few weeks, he realized the low quality of food the disaster relief programs provided and decided to create something better.

Mercy Chefs has provided meals after the derecho in Iowa, numerous hurricanes, the floods in Houston and the tornadoes in Tennessee. Now, the focus has shifted to the closer need of frontline workers in the midst of COVID-19.

“Our team has worked many disasters across the country,” said LeBlanc. “We have never seen anyone as profoundly impacted as these healthcare workers are with these double shifts. Nothing in me can make me relate to what they are going through. It’s brutal, and they need love.”

The workers that received these meals are emergency staff, overnight staff, those working in the COVID-19 wards, ICU, first responders, and the helicopter crew. These healthcare frontline workers have faced double shifts, understaffing and potential exposure since March 2020. According to LeBlanc, providing meals for them was a significant need that was not obvious until now.

“It’s a challenge for a lot of these people,” said LeBlanc. “They work double shifts, and it’s at night when they can’t go out and just grab something to eat. When they get home, they have families to take care of, doing virtual learning and all that. It’s very difficult to have time to make their own tasty and nutritious meals.”

Mercy Chefs partnered with The Pantry Box Project to connect with hospitals in Hampton Roads. Pam Blais and Cathy Fox started this organization, and both have experience as registered nurses and know the toll this pandemic is having on healthcare providers. This project started to give not only food but also encouragement to the workers.

“It gives a little bit of hope in the dark days, and most days are dark and depressing, but when they see us coming, their spirits get lifted up,” said Blais. “We are delivering around 5:30 p.m., and some of these frontline healthcare providers haven’t gotten a break yet. Even if they don’t have one when we first come, they know that waiting for them is a delicious meal.”

During the week of Jan 11, the two organizations have given out 1,000 meals. Blais estimated that next week will cross into 5,000 meals given during the partnership that started on Dec. 22. These meals have been provided to five major hospitals across Hampton Roads.

LeBlanc believes in putting passion and love into the food he makes. The meals provided for the workers are something that will keep, since the food will more than likely sit for a while before being eaten on a break. The healthcare providers at Obici received a Southern grilled chicken wrap with cilantro lime sour cream and corn salsa, chips, black bean and tomato quinoa salad and a snickerdoodle cookie.

“We will continue to do this as long as we are pressed with COVID,” said LeBlanc. “Numbers are supposed to peak in the coming weeks, so we will continue to give food as long as it’s needed.”