If a food pantry’s mission is one of humility, it’s safe to say the Kenner Food Bank has always physically embodied that spirit.
It shared space for years with the city’s unused public works equipment in an abandoned middle school near the river.
In the former Worth Street fire station it now calls home, men and women share a single bathroom, and the hundreds of people who come for food every month sit on mismatched chairs in a hallway created by a makeshift plywood wall that separates them from the food stored in the former garage.
Even years after Hurricane Katrina, the food bank often resorted to handing out MREs when it had nothing else to give, and it had to close its doors on some days because there was simply no food to give away.
All that is expected to change in April, when the city opens the doors of the new Kenner Food Bank, a 2,200-square-foot building at Oxley Street and Lloyd Price Avenue for which officials ceremonially broke ground Thursday.
The $700,000 building will have more refrigerator and freezer space to store milk, butter and fresh produce, a proper lobby, and a service drive and loading dock.
Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni said a local transportation company, Cross Road Centers, has offered to use its trucks to bring additional donations from the Wal-Mart distribution center, which he said would help meet the growing demands on a food bank that helps feed thousands of needy Kenner residents every year.
One of them, Shannon Ingram, was at the current location about an hour later with her mother and her 1-year-old niece.
“A lot of times, it just helps out,” Ingram said as she loaded donated items into her car to help feed her household of six people. “You get the canned goods, and then you can go to the store and get what you don’t have.”
Sitting in the food bank’s office, Arleeta Terrell, director of Kenner’s Department of Community Development, recalled what she found when her office began overseeing the food bank several years ago — starting with the discovery that it was handing out leftover MREs.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” she said. “I would come here, and on some days that would be all they had.”
Terrell said the food bank has been improving its offerings in recent years, and she credited the Sipping for Santa fundraiser for helping to bring in donations.
But Kenner has been increasingly leaning on its food bank in tough economic times. The agency has more than 900 approved clients.
The goal is to provide groceries once a month, with the amount of food determined by the number of people in the family. But the “baskets” handed out are always subject to availability and quality, and there isn’t a lot of cold storage space.
On Thursday, the food bank had cabbage for the first time since November, and watermelons for the first time anyone could remember.
But the mood was upbeat, with a feeling that the new building will end the era of looking at every inadequacy with resignation and an attitude of “It’s better than nothing.”
The food bank’s employees also will appreciate operating out of a building that’s actually designed for it — none more so than stock clerk Edardo Mejia.
Mejia, or Geo, as he’s known, said the lack of a loading dock often makes taking donations off trucks laborious and time-consuming.
“Every time I see a truck, I cross my fingers,” he said.
“He IS the loading dock,” Terrell said, laughing.
Mejia said that in some cases, a job that should take 10 minutes now takes over an hour.
“I get nervous because at the same time we have clients we have to serve” he said.
Within minutes of stopping to talk about the realities of running a food bank out of an old firehouse, Mejia was back at work, making do as he filled shopping carts with loose items because there weren’t enough boxes to meet the demand.
“A lot of people are hungry,” he said, “so you do what you can.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.