PORTSMOUTH — For more than four weeks now, Portsmouth-based emergency relief organization Mercy Chefs has been in Europe assisting Ukrainian refugees.
Mercy Chefs, a faith-based nonprofit that distributes prepared “restaurant-quality” meals to disaster victims, is currently deployed to provide immediate food relief for Ukrainians who are crossing the border into Romania.
Mercy Chefs’ Founder and CEO Chef Gary LeBlanc founded the organization in 2006 after volunteering in his hometown of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. LeBlanc said that he was disillusioned with the food he saw being served to victims, such as green beans from a can, for a number of nights in a row.
“I just thought there was a better way to feed people that had just lost everything,” he said. “Food is love to me.”
What started as LeBlanc and his family has now grown into a team of 34 people on staff, all culinary trained, serving hot meals to people impacted by disasters.
In the last 16 years, Mercy Chefs has served nearly 20 million meals through mobile and community kitchens.
LeBlanc spoke to WYDaily from Romania, where Mercy Chefs is currently on the ground providing emergency food relief for Ukrainians.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “It’s just inhumane whats being done to the people of Ukraine. To be here doing this is extremely rewarding.”
Mercy Chefs has leased a warehouse space to stock food and needed supplies, such as baby formula, and is partnering with local churches and missionaries to provide the relief that they can.
“Mercy Chefs has had a very unique opportunity here. We’re fast, we’re nimble, we’re very flexible,” LeBlanc said. “We came to investigate doing hot meals for refugees that would be in refugee centers, and very quickly realized that wasn’t the need because the Romanians were doing a great job of that out of homes and businesses. We saw the real need was to move bulk product food and supplies into the furthest parts of Ukraine.”
Mercy Chefs is working with a local trucking firm to transport food.
“The Ukrainian truckers won’t take any money,” LeBlanc said. “They say, ‘If you’re going to feed our people, I’m going to drive my truck. Just help me with the cost of fuel.’ It’s been a real blessing. We’ve seen some unique things with the people of Ukraine, and the people here in Romania, the hospitality being shown.”
LeBlanc said that his team has heard “story after story” since being there, including an emotional moment after distributing fresh fruit to refugees.
“We hear that the kids that have been in the subways or the basements for three weeks now, they get an orange and it’s been the highlight of their weeks,” he said. “The fact that an orange would brighten a child’s day is a little bit overwhelming.”
LeBlanc said that they are buying food and products from Europe, but funding is a limitation.
“A million pounds is a lot of food for us, and we’re doubling our efforts every day,” he said. “Giving the resources, we’ll move as much in as we can. And we feel a sense of urgency. Who knows when this window of opportunity will close? So we’re working as diligently and hard as we can.”
LeBlanc is unsure how long Mercy Chefs will assist in Romania.
“As long as the people need us to be here and as long as the resources hold out,” he said. “Obviously that’s the big challenge. But we look ahead, even in the next year or two years, there’s still going to be a need here, whether it’s Mercy Chefs following refugees to Italy or Germany where they have these refugee camps and us taking care of them there. Or whether the Russians pull out tomorrow and the Ukrainians go back home, they’re going to have to rebuild and recover.”
For more information about Mercy Chefs, or to find out how to contribute, visit its website.