You may have seen the images in news reports or on social media, hundreds of vehicles lined up on Airline Drive, waiting to make their way into the Zephyr Field parking lot.
The line wasn’t caused by a New Orleans Saints minicamp practice or a LSU-Tulane baseball game at the Shrine on Airline but something far more serious – hunger.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shut down of most businesses have created a dramatic need for food for thousands of residents of South Louisiana who previously could provide for themselves and their families.
Second Harvest Food Bank, a non-profit founded in 1982, has been distributing food from the stadium’s parking lot from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., every Monday and Thursdays since April 3. The group was forced to move to the large and open location after hundreds of people started lining up daily at its Harahan warehouse, which isn’t where the group traditionally distributes food.
There has long been a need to feed the hungry in South Louisiana but the pandemic and related business shutdown has forced more than 200,000 Louisianians to file for unemployment benefits. The state hasn’t seen a need this great since immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, called this crisis more intense than Katrina.
Jayroe said 1,500 cars went through Zephyr Field on Monday, down from the 3,300 vehicles last Thursday partly because the group has opened more distribution sites. More than 130,000 pounds of food were distributed last Thursday and close to 100,000 on Monday. And this distribution site is just one the group is running in the 23-parish area it serves, with the Alario Center serving as another major location.
Second Harvest has been helped by several donations from players, coaches and officials with the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans.
Last March, the Tom and Gayle Benson Foundation donated $3.5 million to Second Harvest. “Without Mrs. Benson’s donation we could not run this warehouse,” Jayroe said Monday afternoon.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife Brittany pledged $5 million to feed the hungry throughout Louisiana and part of that work is being done through Second Harvest. The goal of Brees’ donation is provide 10,000 meals a day to children on meals programs, seniors and others in need.
Pelicans guard JJ Redick and his wife Chelsea, in partnership with the Pelicans and Lineage Logistics, announced a donation through Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, to support Second Harvest, that will provide more than 1.8 million meals to those in need throughout the New Orleans community.
Saints Coach Sean Payton announced Friday he was donating $100,000 to Second Harvest during a telethon on WDSU-6. Saints players Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Andrus Peat and Deonte Harris have made donations and Saints legend Archie Manning and his family have been longtime supporters.
“We’re excited on behalf of our foundation to be able to help the people that need it,” Payton said in a televised interview with WDSU. “… I came here right after Katrina, and at that time there were so many, so many different groups that were in need. And so right away you saw our sports figures, our coaches open up foundations and myself included. Look, there’s a little bit of a social responsibility to what we do and (we) embrace it. And that’s the magic of this city. And that’s the grit of this town. And this is our home. And so these are our friends. These are our parents and grandparents. So it’s an easy decision.”
If you’re interested in donating please click here. Entergy is matching each donation dollar for dollar until the end of April (up to $75,000). Every dollar donated can be turned into four meals, Jayroe said. The group is operating its kitchen in three eight-hour shifts, five days a week to meet the growing demand for food.
Like Coach Payton said, the decision is easy and the need is real.
Doug Tatum is the vice president of digital media for the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints, joining the organizations in 2013 following a 20-year career in journalism. He will be writing a weekly column on the intersection of sports and the coronavirus pandemic.