“It’s just a zero,” Mercy Chefs Founder and President Gary LeBlanc says nonchalantly.
“The difference between 50 and 500 is just a zero, and zero has no value.” Gary explains that for his team of chefs, there is no limit to the number of meals they can prepare in a day; all they have to do is scale up. “We have the ability, technology, skill, experience and training to feed any number of people that need it,” he says. “We operate under the hallmark of whatever the question is, our answer will be yes.”
This limitless mindset is perhaps what initially inspired the partnership between Mercy Chefs and the Foodbank. Mercy Chefs brings over 14 years of knowledge and experience from serving nearly 2.5 million meals in the aftermath of natural disasters and national emergencies. “About five years ago, my wife challenged me to be busy in between disasters,” Gary laughs. So, they began partnering with organizations to address childhood hunger on a local level. “It’s great to go all around the country or even to places around the world to do what we do, but we can’t do that at the cost of our own neighbors not getting the attention and assistance that they need. Mercy Chefs made a very conscious decision to focus on those people right here in our own backyard.”
Earlier this year, Mercy Chefs began creating healthy dishes using the Foodbank’s fresh produce to offer cooking demonstrations and food tastings to families through the Foodbank’s Healthy School Market program. Families who were encouraged to try the dishes would then have the opportunity to take fresh ingredients with them to recreate the meals at home.
Having a solid understanding of Mercy Chefs’ ability to prepare high-quality meals at a limitless capacity, the Foodbank knew that this organization would be vital for feeding people in need during the pandemic. Focusing on seniors and children specifically, Mercy Chefs began preparing healthy and delicious meals to be chilled, delivered and reheated as needed. Some favorite options among individuals receiving the meals have been corned beef and cabbage, prime rib and grilled chicken, each accompanied by fresh vegetables and sides.
Gary describes the feedback as being incredible. “We’ve had some seniors pick the phone up and call us or send handwritten notes, and they’re just so grateful,” he says. “These were at-risk people before COVID—people who were facing food insecurity, people who didn’t have transportation. They really didn’t know what they were going to do. Now they’re receiving these beautiful, chef-prepared meals delivered right to their door.”
The Foodbank originally determined that in order to meet an immediate need, Mercy Chefs should prepare 2,000 meals a day. Pretty soon, however, it became clear that they would need to expand from 2,000 to 3,000. This was no problem for Mercy Chefs; all they had to do is scale up.
Even though numbers are just numbers to Gary, when it comes to meals, he puts careful consideration into each one because each meal equals a person. “Every meal that we package, we remind the volunteers who are here helping us package those meals—those are 3,000 faces.” With each meal, Gary considers the quality and asks himself if he would be proud to serve that meal to his own family for dinner. “That’s the level that we chase on every meal that we put in a package,” he says. “We can’t just think about the meals. We have to think about the people.”
With experience working in situations of natural disasters and national emergencies, Gary knows that the initial disaster causes a magnificent impact, but then there are after-effects that can continue to devastate a community in the months or years to come. COVID-19 is no different. “We all know the economic effects of what has happened in our country, around the world and here in Tidewater. We’re going to be dealing with those effects for a very long time,” he explains. “Nobody’s going to throw a switch and we’ll be back to where we were. What we thought was normal may never exist again. But let’s all work together to find this new normal.”
Gary says that working together with organizations such as the Foodbank has been a natural evolution of the need in the community. “This situation has certainly forced us to work together,” he says. “But now that we have, there’s no reason to back away from it. We can do so much more together than we can do independently. We need to continue those relationships because the need is so great.”