Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011

FoodNet is marking a quarter century of service to the less fortunate with a new leader and a renewed focus on its core principles. By Andrea Gallo

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                                                       Photo by Robin May
                  FoodNet's Lemel Jones

Lemel Jones laughs as she recalls her college days when, as a “rapid train who’s out of control,” she used to wake her friends from their Saturday morning slumber to work on projects, particularly ones involving feeding the hungry. While the people she inspires to volunteer may have changed over the years, her attitude of service and love for reaching out to the community are permanent.

“When you come across a family that calls you and says, ‘I have no food,’ it’s so overwhelming and touching. I live the experience and I take it home,” Jones (pictured above) says, tears welling in her eyes. “People tell me, you always take it home with you. But why not? I take those kids with me, those seniors with me, and I think about them — what I can do to make things different. I literally want people to be able to get the best of what we have.”

Jones was recently named executive director of FoodNet — The Greater Acadiana Food Bank — after her predecessor, Mary Ellen Citron, retired. Jones says she’s been inspired by Mary Ellen, along with Marcelle Citron, who started FoodNet 25 years ago. Community, Jones stresses, is what keeps FoodNet running, and is why she chooses to work there.

With more than 10 years of food bank experience under her belt, Jones climbed her way up to chief programs officer at Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans, where she labored during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While she enjoyed her experience there — Jones says she was “meeting the Nancy Pelosis and John Travoltas” — she realized she wanted to work where the people who need help are and where the volunteers go. This led her to Lafayette’s FoodNet, where she waded into the community and among the volunteers.

“Sometimes people say, ‘It’s free food, they get what they get,’” Jones says, bristling. “That makes me upset. It’s never, ‘What you get is what you get.’ We are all one step away from needing assistance… you don’t know the behind-the-scenes story.”

Fred Alexander, FoodNet’s office manager, says he is amazed that volunteers come “from all walks of life.” Some are wealthy, like one man who develops condominiums in Florida, while others are “trusties” — people in jail for minor crimes who have volunteered with FoodNet for years.

The goal with volunteers, Jones says, is to help them understand how much their work impacts their community. Though volunteers may never distribute food directly to the hungry, Jones and her staff are responsible for making sure volunteers realize that the box of pasta and jar of sauce they bag is dinner for a hungry family.

Jones hopes to bring in more fruits and vegetables and work with local farmers, and would like to write and apply for grants, which she did at Second Harvest. Her ultimate vision for FoodNet includes a farmer’s market, cooking classes and sessions about healthy eating.

“We want to say, ‘We’re here for you,’” she says. “We’re not claiming to be the grocery store, but we will be a supplement to get over that difficult point in your life. We have the homeless mom of five who comes through, but we also have the retired person. We want to handle that with efficiency, qualify of food and compassion.”

FoodNet’s “25 for 25” program is under way, and the community can support FoodNet in any way it sees fit. Volunteers are welcome on Mondays, Wednesdays or Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and FoodNet often has special projects on Saturdays. FoodNet also welcomes monetary donations. And if anyone wants to host a food drive, FoodNet will provide signs and materials. FoodNet is located at 217 Surrey St. and can be reached at (337) 232-3663.

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