When the Storm Parted: Food Distribution in the Upper Nine

[written at the request and help of friends at the Homecoming Center and printed in their enewsletter “In the N.O.”]

With the sky opening up after an early afternoon storm, twelve people waited in a line leading up to the pink porch of a gutted out double shotgun on Pauline Street in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The residence of Bishops Henry and Ella O’Neill now acts as a Food Distribution Center from 1pm to 3pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the back rooms without fans in mid-June, volunteers promptly got to work and started filling cardboard boxes with standard amounts of canned and boxed goods, including: 3 cans veggies, 2 chili, 2 peanut butter, 4 applesauce, 2 juices, 4 tuna fish, 2 rice mixes and 2 Kraft pastas.
Around 1:30 p.m. Miss Ella arrived, walking through her house, hugging all the volunteers whose friendly faces she hadn’t seen in three days. Before heading out to the front desk, Miss Ella confirmed the center’s anniversary, with both arms raised, “One year!”
The first room acts as a reception area where residents are let in one-by-one to sit at the sign-in desk. Each person answers a set of questions from Miss Ella: Is this your first time? Can I see your Louisiana I.D.? Where do you live? How’d ya hear ’bout us? How many people live in your house? What’s your monthly income? These records help the center lobby Second Harvest for more goods by knowing how many people are dependent on its services.
Miss Ella always asks the questions with a measure of concern, but she’s also eager to offer bits of sound advice. As one man sat down and explained he had no picture I.D. because of the flood, she allowed him to take one box. “We need to know you’re stayin’ here and not somewhere else. We told people in January this. I’ll let you go this time, but next time I’ll need Louisiana ID,” she continued, trying to urge him to get out of the predicament. “Just go down and get your I.D.! Five dolla!” The man was surprised, not so much at her New Orleanian boisterousness, but that it could be so easy to get a new I.D.
“Send in the next one!”
Dessie Alexander, an older volunteer, reflexively responds to the call, opening up the metal barred screen door and motions for the next person in line to enter. Miss Dessie, who lives in a FEMA trailer around the corner, has volunteered since December. She knows most of the regulars on sight now, but sees many new faces today. Miss Ella just had some television ads air on the public stations, but people show up almost entirely by word of mouth, according to Miss Dessie.
Miss Ella touched on the center’s flexible philosophy for how much food to distribute in different circumstances. “If someone’s got no dollars and someone that’s got one thousand dollars, is different. Someone who just came back, paying water, rent, utilities…got nothing left for FOOD. So we give ’em extra. Someone with one thousand [per month] just need a little something to get them on their feet,” she said with her disarmingly higher than average pitch. Looking back toward the front door, Miss Ella admitted, “Every case is different.” Then, as bubbly as ever, her short black hair full of curls bobbing, Miss Ella greets a middle-aged woman, “how you doin’ sugar?”
Then a preacher comes in, whom the ladies think is muslim. He is earnest about receiving only juice for he does not need to take food from those who truly need it. He makes no income of note, he answered.

Then, while looking at Miss Ella, he nodded to the monetary donation box on the desk, which barely contains twenty crumpled one dollar bills, and added: “I don’t like that. Money chains people.” Despite this comment–whether an insult or advice–he adds that he knows people with lots of “commodities” that could bring additional goods for the distro to use.
After the man left, one volunteer said, “When one door closed another door opens.”
“It always does,” Miss Ella responded. “Without this,” she said pointing toward the donation of crumpled bills, “I can’t pay my church mortgage, without it I can’t pay my light bills.”
Bishops Henry and Ella O’Neill moved to New Orleans from rural Edgard, Louisiana in 1988 after their youngest child graduated high school. Jackie, their youngest daughter, described Edgard as a place where you “open the front door, there’s sugarcane.” It seemed that the couple was eager to move to the city after raising their children in the relative safety of the country. At first the O’Neill’s preached at a church in the Gentilly Neighborhood along Louisa Road, but after the storm they started a church called “Lift Up Thy Name Higher” on the West Bank. With their home now acting as a food distro, the couple in their sixties lives and sleeps in the church.
On the sidewalk outside his house, Bishop Henry O’Neill, a solidly built man with a gray mustache and glasses, said his former church in Gentilly served food to the needy for 14 years and that in the face of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, “God told me to ‘Keep the Doors Open.'” Though two deliveries come per week, the recent loads from Second Harvest have been getting smaller, a challenge to the O’Neill’s passion for feeding the historically neglected in their community.
Despite cans and boxes of food stacked high on palettes, Odie Moore (a.k.a. Mister Odie), a middle-aged volunteer who coaches sports in New Orleans East, conveyed that the distribution center has a lower volume than normal due to Second Harvest’s smaller deliveries. “They just send whatever. You give away what you got to give,” he explained while pulling out cans from the stacks, moving around a small, volunteer-crowded back room. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
In response to the downturn in support to the ten-plus food distribution centers across New Orleans, two buses of supporters went to Baton Rouge on June 16 to show that people still need these basic services.
Gloria Buxton, who volunteers every week, went to Baton Rouge. She wore the lime green t-shirt made for the trip: the front is the legislative bill number for maintaining financial support for the food programs while the back, in stylized letters, reads “Louisiana Votes for Food” with a check in place of the V. After staying in the capitol for three hours, Buxton felt that “people responded” and that politicians needed to see the documentation that the program was well used. “To get something for free you gotta show if people are participating,” Buxton rationalized. After losing her job of 22 years to Katrina, Buxton couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing. “I’ve been working so long, it’s hard to sit down. I never could see it [how hard I worked] until I stopped working,” reflected Buxton, whose work ethic is noticeable when packing and carrying box after box.
At 3:20 p.m. the last person in line enters and sits down at the sign-in desk. In the meantime, the crew of eight volunteers collect themselves for a photograph to commemorate the anniversary. All packing stops. Noticing the silence, Miss Ella turns around and shrieks, “Let’s go! Let’s go! One more box, a double!” Turning back to the box’s recipient, Miss Ella jokes, “Too much lovin’ in here!”
Outside on the pink porch of the white double shotgun, everyone–even, especially Miss Ella–gathered together to celebrate the success of the food program. In just over two hours on this day, the team gave a week’s worth of groceries to at least fifty people and their families. Moments after the group dispersed a light rain began to fall.
MON, WED, FRI 1PM TO 3:30PM 1423 Pauline Street off of N. Robertson in Upper Ninth

Published in: on June 26, 2007 at 6:19 pm  Comments (1)