Fun in the French Quarter and Food Bank!

It’s already Friday, do you know what that means?  The Calgary Serves: New Orleans experience is winding down to the last leg, which is a bittersweet realization.

I have unfortunately come down with a cold and a pretty nasty cough early on during my stay, so I haven’t been able to do as much work as I would have liked, but today our work weary group got a well deserved rest and the opportunity to explore the world famous French Quarter of New Orleans!

The French Quarter is full of the beautiful historic architecture that New Orleans is famous for.  The are hundreds of small shops, cafes, restaurants and other odds and ends worth exploring.  Our group started off the day in Jackson Square close to the museums housing Katrina and Mardi Gras exhibits.  We split into little groups and were off on our way, eager to take in all the sights and sounds available.  Seeing the colourful window displays, hand painted shop signs and warm Southern greetings from shop keepers was definitely an experience to remember.  We wandered through a few candy shops stocked full of fudge, taffy and pralines that were very tempting to scoop up.  I picked up three stunning masquerade masks at a corner shop.  One for myself and two for some close friends.  The wide selection of the colourful masks was amazing.

Later on in the day I made my way back to the museum and met up with a large number of group members to take in the exhibits.  The displays for the Katrina exhibits coupled with videos and testimonies from first hand survivors made the experience surreal and very haunting.  Even after looking at displays of damaged property, clothing worn by survivors and volunteers, the food and liquids shipped in to evacuees, I still feel like I’ve only gotten a glimpse into what the people of New Orleans went through. The video testimonies were heart wrenching and you could hear the pain in people’s voices as they recalled the horrors that they experienced.  One story that struck me was from a rescue worker who was lowered down on a helicopter to a balcony that had a woman and her children.  The woman shoved her infant boy into the worker’s arms who then had to hold on tight because the harnesses weren’t small enough for infants.  Hearing how that rescue worker felt and the things she saw as she clung to that child was an intense moment of the day for me.

The Mardi Gras exhibits were like a breath of fresh air.  There were displays of costumes, ornaments, beads, invitations and more to be looked at.  It was a really interested experience to read about all the history behind Mardi Gras and the numerous traditions.  The entire celebration is more then just day long debauchery and beads being thrown everywhere.  There is a long and deep history behind every tradition that happens every year on Fat Tuesday and for the entire period of Carnival leading up to Mardi Gras.

After wrapping up our trip we headed down to the Second Harvest Food bank for a few hours of volunteering.  The food bank differed slightly from the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank.  Second Harvest services Southern Louisiana and unlike the food bank in Calgary, does not deal with people in need directly on a person to person basis.  Instead, this food bank gives their donated food to various agencies like drop-in centers and charities who then distribute the food to people in need.  Our task for the day was to sort boxes of donated goods into different categories and pack them up for delivery.  I got the pleasure of putting the emptied boxes of donated goods back together for future use.  Having never been to a food bank it was an eye-opening experience to see what kinds of foods were donated and what was accepted.  They had a white board notice saying that even if certain foods were over the expiry date they could still be kept and sent on.  Also, a lot of the donated items were not food items I would normally shop for.  There were a lot of unhealthy options like Poptarts and carbonated drinks.  It really hit home two issues for me.  The first being that I am incredibly privileged to never have to contemplate accepting food that is either expired or not my first choice of product.  The second is that people who do rely on food banks may feel some sort of shame in having to take food items that seem to be of lower quality.

While I do agree that food banks are helpful and needed in areas where low income families struggle to make ends meet, I have also learned through various discussions on food security that food banks are emergency food services only.  In essence, they are a band-aid solution that can only solve food security issues temporarily.  For long term food security there have to be other measures implemented to supply good food to people and not just the throw aways from a grocery store or what people have left over in their pantries.  Second Harvest is doing a great job with what they’re being given and I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with them.  They were all very grateful to have us as volunteers for the day and it was a good feeling to be able to see our immediate impact.

Cafe au lait and beignets!

We headed back to Annunciation for dinner and a short break before going back for a second visit.  What a great treat from our coordinator, Erin!  This time around, I was able to stop in at the famous Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets!  Beignets are fried donuts sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and are worth every single sugar smudge and dollar.  If I could buy a crate to ship home instantly, I would!  Cafe au lait is half coffee and half milk.  I’ve never been a huge coffee fan, but I found it lighter then normal coffee and more enjoyable.  A friendly waiter also listened to our request for some hats as they all wear standard uniforms and he happily obliged us.

I think this may have been my favourite day so far!  The French Quarter gave me a taste of what the culture is like in New Orleans and I will never look at donuts the same way after eating a beignet!  For anyone visiting New Orleans, I definitely recommend taking a day or two to explore the little shops up and down the streets.  You may find a hidden treasure!  I also really enjoyed working with the Second Harvest food bank and seeing what they do.  I hope to have the opportunity to help out with the Calgary Inter-faith Food Bank when I return home (which is in two days!)

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