It is 4:00pm on a Wednesday in July, in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Volunteers are just beginning to arrive and sign in for their shifts. All the food has been taken off the truck and is ready to be prepared for distribution. In two hours, volunteers will put together roughly 350 bags of groceries to give to the community; in less than 20 minutes, all of it will be gone.
This is the type of aid disseminated by Culture Aid NOLA (CAN), a nonprofit organization whose objective lies in providing under-served New Orleanians access to food. Through its straightforward approach, CAN places a no-barrier, stigma-free system at its forefront. Typically, a traditional food bank may request individuals to present their state-issued ID, current pay stub, or utility bill in order to confirm their identity and demonstrate that they qualify for collecting food. CAN is not your traditional food bank.
“We serve an immediate need,” says Erica Chomsky-Adelson, the founder and Executive Director of CAN, who for 14 years has worked with numerous nonprofits in disaster response.
Founded in March of 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, CAN’s underpinnings are, according to Chomsky-Adelson, “based on the principles that everyone deserves to eat good food, served with dignity, hospitality, and grace.” In its first week, CAN served 500 meals using food rescued from restaurants that began shutting down. Although Chomsky-Adelson knew the number of meals was “not small potatoes,” she also knew it was not enough. The following week, 750 meals were served, and the week after that, the number rose to 5,000. Fast forward to July 2022, and CAN has distributed approximately two million pounds of food. On average, the nonprofit serves 3,000 people a week or 2,000 families each month.
Louisiana is facing a food insecurity crisis of monumental proportions, bearing the second highest rate of food insecurity in the country. According to a report by the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, this rate is ascending faster than in any other state. The report, titled "Hungry at the Banquet: Food Insecurity 2018," defines food insecurity as “the number of people who regularly run out of food, go at least a day without eating, or who do not know where their next meal will come from.”
While this tends to be a common interpretation of food insecurity, Chomsky-Adelson perceives the term in a similar yet slightly different manner. “I think there’s often a misconception that food insecurity refers solely to people with empty pantries and empty bellies, people who can’t feed their children, people who are skipping meals to make ends meet," she says. "I’d like to see the definition of food insecurity reframed a little to mean food confidence: people who might have food now but don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. When we look at it like that, it encompasses a lot more families.”
CAN’s strides in food distribution have led them to pursue community endeavors on an even grander scale. On July 16, 2022, the nonprofit and many of its partners organized their first iteration of an event known as "July Supply." With the constant threat of hurricane season hovering over New Orleans from the months of June through November, the proper evacuation measures must be in place to protect every resident. However, since it can take about 72 hours for the entire city to evacuate, not to mention the uncertainty of a hurricane’s intensity when it makes landfall, New Orleanians need swift access to supplies that will help them get through the storm.
Enter "July Supply," a mass distribution conceived with the purpose of assisting citizens with hurricane preparedness. By providing thousands of supplies ranging from flashlights to food boxes to water, this event served $738,176 worth of goods to 2,000 families.
As CAN continues to make a difference in New Orleans, working towards the goal of food security for all, Chomsky-Adelson says that the nonprofit is “dedicated to changing the narrative of scarcity. There is enough food. There is enough food for everyone. And there is no reason why we can’t share it with each other.”