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Contributed photos by Megan Beckman / The meals are provided for people living in the affected area and first responders, volunteers, and public works employees charged with getting life back to normal as can be.

When natural disasters hit Chattanooga, history has shown that people turn out in large numbers to do everything from cut trees to haul off brush to provide clothing and shelter. They also show up to provide food for not only those affected by a flood, tornado or now a virus, they feed the volunteers, first responders and public workers.

Mercy Chefs, a Virginia-based disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization that serves prepared, restaurant-quality meals to victims and first responders in emergencies and natural disasters, has been in Chattanooga since tornadoes hit the area on April 12, and they have served more than 25,000 meals since being here.

"Y'all are amazing," Mercy Chefs founder Gary LeBlanc said.

"I was there for a week, and to see 100-200 people at Venue [church] ready to help has been very rewarding, and the gratitude of the people has been so generous and effusive."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area tornado relief: How to help and how to get help)

Mercy Chefs was also in Nashville after tornadoes ripped through there in early March. LeBlanc has been so impressed with the area and the people, especially in Chattanooga, talks are underway about Mercy Chefs having a presence here in the future.

"It's way too early to know what that might be, but Tennessee is an amazing place.

"Our hearts are with Chattanooga and the surrounding communities and the lives lost in the tornado," LeBlanc said. "We're fortunate to have a team that can respond quickly when disaster strikes, and we hope to be able to provide a level of comfort to the people of Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia this week by the way of a warm meal."

Fast Facts

* Since beginning meal service on April 15, Mercy Chefs has served over 25,000 meals in Chattanooga. Meal service continues daily.

* On April 21 alone, Mercy Chefs distributed 13,200 pounds of chicken for area residents to prepare in their homes.

Mercy Chefs team members set up shop on the campus of Venue Church on Lee Highway. They've used the church as a distribution hub and are delivering meals from there to other affected areas. The organization is practicing social distancing and taking other precautions to safely serve recipients during this time.

Mercy Chefs also is responding to relief efforts related to the coronavirus, serving approximately 15,000 meals a week in Virginia with meal service expanding across the United States to other areas experiencing a high level of need.

LeBlanc founded Mercy Chefs in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, his hometown. A 30-year veteran of the food and hospitality industry, he went back to volunteer and realized disaster relief could be done better. For several years, he did it by himself, taking vacation or time off to travel to hard hit areas.

It's now a full-time operation with a core staff of about 20 full- and part-time people and three support vehicles with refrigeration and generators. Donations provide the nearly $3 million a year it takes to operate, and LeBlanc said Mercy Chefs can provide its prepared meals for about $5 per serving when all costs are factored in.

When a disaster hits, Mercy Chefs sends four or five of its people into the area and then enlists local chefs when possible and volunteers to prepare and deliver the meals. Its mission is to stay "until the work is done."

"As long as we can get water, we can go just about anywhere. Often where we are going resembles the moon, and we also don't want to be a burden on an already struggling area. We've done over 125 disaster responses and no two are the same, even when they appear almost identical. One thing is, we are always stunned by the resiliency of people and neighbor helping neighbor."

 

 

 

The organization served its 2 millionth meal last year and recently has responded to Hurricanes Dorian, Maria, Florence and Michael, the Carr fires, the Houston floods, as well as tornadoes in Tennessee, Alabama and Ohio. It continues to serve the Panama City community after Hurricane Michael.

The group isn't the only one feeding people. Hugh Harris, owner of Farm to Fork, said he woke up the day after the tornadoes hit and felt compelled to do something. He first called his food supplier at Reinhardt Corp. in Knoxville about getting several hundred hamburgers and hot dogs and then called a friend with a bigger grill than the one he had. Both men jumped on board.

"Reinhardt is great. I called my guy, Ryan, and the phone rang twice. He picked up and said the answer is, 'Yes.' The stuff was on my doorstep the next morning."

Harris drove up from Ringgold to East Brainerd to scout out the best place to set up and ran into John Shackleford, whom he'd met a while ago. Shackleford told Harris to follow him.

"He took me to a spot and then pointed and said, 'That's my house. It was destroyed.' We served 360 meals to linemen, residents, police, all kinds of people.

"Two women came into the tent and just cried and said how much this meant to them," Harris said.

Harris said Sheriff Jim Hammond and his staff provided a police escort for him when they learned what he was doing.

"They were really cool, and we fed them hamburgers, hot dogs and Key lime pie."

Since the virus outbreak, Mindy Benton, owner of Mindy B's on Georgia Avenue, shifted her operation to something she calls Front Line Meals and has been cooking for first responders and hospital workers.

Like Harris, she made a trip out to the tornado damaged area. She went to a neighborhood in Ooltewah where a friend lived.

"I just drove up, and started handing out box lunches with sandwiches, chips, cookies and water," she said.

She said donations have helped her pay her employees and serve more than 900 meals.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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