Benny Druilhet spends his days organizing volunteer activities for missionaries who travel across the country to visit the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Sager-Brown Depot in rural St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.
On any given day, UMCOR volunteers from as far away as Michigan, California and Maine can be found packing relief kits for shipment to war-torn countries, installing handicap ramps at local homes, reading to schoolchildren, and cleaning apartments for the elderly in Baldwin, population 2,375.
Once a month, volunteers spend a day in the gymnasium, located at the heart of the 23-acre campus on Bayou Teche, to feed 600 seniors enrolled in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
Feeding hungry people is their favorite activity. And they want to do more of it.
“When volunteers come here, they find that they want to help the local people as much as they want to help out in the warehouse,” says Druilhet, director of outreach ministries and a lifelong resident of St. Mary Parish. “It’s fine to pack the relief kits, but people really want to work with the local community.”
St. Mary Parish is Louisiana’s only rural coastal parish. Situated right in the middle of south Louisiana’s shoreline, St. Mary is in a hurricane hotspot. It is also a mecca for commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration.
That means when storms come ashore or industry takes a downturn, locals get hit hardest. Over the years, St. Mary Parish residents have borne the brunt of the physical and economic damage wrought by both natural and manmade disasters. Today, the parish has a crippling and pervasive rural child poverty rate of 32.4 percent.
With this in mind, I visited Benny, Sam and Elizabeth at the Sager-Brown Depot in late September as part of my work with the Feeding America Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute, made possible through a generous grant from C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc. I brought along James Robertson, one of three agency relations and program coordinators at Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans. James is responsible for outreach and capacity-building in St. Mary Parish, where we currently have six active emergency food pantries. Collectively, our St. Mary network is feeding 3,240 people per month, including 1,000 children – that’s about one-third of the meal gap.
We know we must do more for our rural communities. We also know that the number-one way to feed more hungry children in distressed places like St. Mary Parish on a sustainable basis is through coalition-building. When many different groups unite, anything is possible – which brings us back to the Depot.
The next step after coalition-building is capacity-building at the local partner level. James and I spent the day with Benny, Sam, Elizabeth and interim Executive Director Ted Warnock to do this critical work.
At the end of our first meeting, UMCOR committed to a three-part program development plan over the next 12 months: (1) Establish an on-site client choice pantry at UMCOR in January 2016; (2) Partner with the St. Mary Parish Parks Department to feed hungry rural children next summer; and (3) Launch a School Pantry inside the Mickey Mouse Head Start Center in Baldwin by August 2016.
For the Depot and its many volunteers, this plan means that in addition to providing international relief – packing, storing and distributing bedding, birthing, cleaning, health, school and sewing kits – the UMCOR campus would serve double duty as a one-stop-shop for hungry people in St. Mary Parish.
Of course, they’re not going to do it alone.
Part of coalition-building, capacity-building and program outreach is reciprocity: sharing resources and bringing people to the table. Second Harvest will provide the food, meals and support. UMCOR staff and volunteers will run the pantry and dispatch volunteers during Summer Feeding meal times and School Pantry distributions. The Parks Department will coordinate Summer Feeding outreach in conjunction with, the mayor of Baldwin, and the local health department. The Head Start center will clear space for a school-based pantry.
In this way, we will work together to close the rural child hunger gap.
When rural communities show up in the news, it’s usually not positive. Through the Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute, we are flipping the script on rural communities as deindustrialized wastelands. Whereas urban poverty is something that we can conceptualize – something that we can understand in a way that allows us to advance solutions – rural poverty can be difficult to visualize. By focusing on combating poverty and improving access to services in rural and tribal places, the Capacity Institute is putting a face on hunger – and motivating local, state and regional leaders to get involved in efforts and policies to reframe the stories that define rural America.
*Kimberly Krupa is director of programs and services at Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana.
**Photo courtesy of
Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana.