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February 3, 2015

*Reposted from Feeding America member Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans

Gail Womack Murray grew up in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and enjoyed a ten-year career in accounting with a local bank before becoming a proud member of the U.S. Navy.

“In 1981, I joined the Department of Defense on Poland Avenue, and fell in love with the military. I was a little bit older, but I joined the Navy. With my active duty and reserve time, I served sixteen years.”

She saw active duty during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then stayed with the Department of Defense in a civilian role following her years of service. Then, an unexpected life event forced her to apply for food stamps.

“At the time, I was making less pay, and then I went through a divorce and was trying to raise three children. I didn’t qualify for food stamps, so I just didn’t know what to do. When I left the food stamp office, there was nothing at the house to eat. And I think the hardest part about it was that I had two in diapers, and I had a five year old.”

Miss Gail, as she is known, says it was tough for her to turn to a food pantry at a local Baptist Church. She never imagined that her family could ever face the threat of hunger. “It was really, really hard for me to go ask for assistance. I had a college education and I paid taxes all these years, and now I had to ask for help. “

The unconditional support and love she found at the food pantry, however, was exactly what she needed at such a tough time in her life. “The people were so nice,” she said. “They gave me food I could go home and cook for my kids and a voucher to go to Winn-Dixie… thinking back, I can’t remember everything that was in the box, but I do remember how nice they were to me in a time of need.”

After getting back on her feet, Miss Gail began her own food pantry in 1998 to help others in need. From the very start, Love in Action Ministry has received 100 percent of its food from Second Harvest Food Bank. Then, in 2005, another major life event struck everyone in the New Orleans area: Hurricane Katrina. After evacuating to Texas for a short time, she says she could not wait to get back, because she knew the need now was even greater than before the storm. And, as soon as she returned, Second Harvest again partnered with her to help neighbors in need following one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. “The church our pantry was in got about ten feet of water. So, we set up a tent and mobile pantry on the corner of Chef Menteur, and we partnered with Second Harvest, which brought 18-wheelers full of food, and we did that for 18 months.”

Today, the Love in Action food pantry helps 1,800 households a week, up from 400 households per week before Katrina. After retiring from the military in 2010, Miss Gail’s food pantry became her full-time dedication. And, sadly, she sees many people who come to her pantry with an all-too-familiar story: They often do not qualify for food stamps because their incomes are too high, but their low paying jobs are not enough to adequately feed their families.

“There are so many who fall into the category of the ‘working poor,’ and New Orleans being mainly a hospitality industry, people aren’t being paid a lot. I know for a fact that it takes some life-changing moment to trigger that need for help. We can’t do everything, but we can help with the food issue. We want to lessen the impact of food insecurity.”

Among the thousands helped by Miss Gail’s work is Mercedes, who doesn’t qualify for SNAP (food stamp) assistance. “It’s a blessing to me,” Mercedes said of Love in Action and Second Harvest. “I’m raising six grandbabies, because my daughter was killed two years ago. Many days, I don’t eat so I can feed them. I could go two, three days…but to have a child not eat for a day, it’s not right.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without the support of the pantry. “Miss Gail is an angel, that’s how I have her listed in my phone. Because every time she calls, I know it’s good news. She has touched my heart in so many ways.”

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Take Action , Louisiana , Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana

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