Between the marching bands and the cheering crowds, the last thing anyone could hear on a Mardi Gras parade route is a rumbling stomach.
But for New Orleans police officers working the route, the long parades and even longer days leading up to Mardi Gras can make the prospect of a meal more desirable than a Zulu coconut. That’s why, as they watch the crowd, officers also look out for the blue and white food truck dispatched to serve them at their posts.
“We get (to the route) two hours before the parade starts, and when the parade is done there’s another one coming. It can be a very long day,” said officer Shumeca Garrison, a 14-year veteran of the force. “By the time you get out there and see that (food) truck coming, you’re ready; you’re excited to see it.”
When Carnival parades roll in New Orleans, the Police Department deploys a food truck in advance. It stops wherever officers are stationed along the route, dispensing a bowl of hot jambalaya, a brown bag lunch or just a quick snack. The food is free, supplied by police advocates and supported by public contributions.
“This is for our krewe in blue,” said Melanie Talia, executive director of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the Police Department and coordinates the food truck effort.
“They don’t get much chance to get off their assigned spot, so the food truck really sustains them,” she said. “It’s the things people don’t think about, like if you’re out there on the route for an entire day and you need to be at your post, you can’t just go find a restaurant for lunch.”
Rations on route
Though it’s called a food truck, the vehicle doesn’t much resemble the mobile vendors that are part of the street food scene for civilians. It’s a small box truck, equipped inside with cabinets and food prep areas. Volunteers serve officers from the roll-up door at the back.
The Fraternal Order of Police and the Black Organization of Police each deploy panel vans on the same mission, and organizers try to keep at least one vehicle in circulation for each parade.
Police food trucks have been fixtures for years, though even the most ardent parade watchers may not notice them. They are among the few elements in the procession not dishing out beads and throws, and they tend to blend in with the other utilitarian parts of a parade. Police officers know all about them, however, and eagerly anticipate their arrival.
As a food truck rolls down the route, officers queue up by its door, craning to see what sort of food is available. They usually eat their meals while standing on the street at their posts or perhaps over the hood of a nearby squad car.
Carnival is always an immensely busy time for the Police Department. Last year, the NOPD racked up close to 54,000 manpower hours during the city's 12-day parading period.
“When you’re standing out there for hours and hours, it gets old," said Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, whose group contributes supplies for the trucks. “If you’re hot or you’re cold and you’re hungry, we try to at least alleviate one of those.”
The Police and Justice Foundation uses its “Adopt-a-Cop” program to help supply the food trucks, soliciting donations from the public and businesses through its web site. It also turns to a network of supporters in the New Orleans hospitality industry. Most are hotels and restaurants, and Talia said they prefer to keep their contributions anonymous.
The foundation’s volunteers make the rounds early, shuttling from hotel and restaurant kitchens to the trucks stationed Uptown at the start of parades. Donations of 500 to 1,000 servings at a time are typical for these contributions, Talia said. Coordination begins months in advance.
“When it’s deep football season and we’re all hoping the Saints will make the playoffs, the Police Foundation is already in Carnival planning mode for this,” she said.
Trinity Episcopal School has made its contribution to the police food truck part of an annual service project for students. To a soundtrack of Mardi Gras tunes, a group of seventh-graders and their teachers will make some 500 brown bag lunches for the food truck, assembling sandwiches and tucking in chips, a cookie pack and fruit. Students then write messages for officers on the outside of the bag.
Some are earnest — “Thank you for protecting us,” “We love blue” — though others aim to make the officers laugh.
“It’s almost over,” read one droll example last year. “Hope your feet don’t hurt!” another announced in cheery marker script.
“It’s fun and they feel like they’re part of the big event, helping out the guys and ladies who make this possible,” said Grace Perez, a Spanish teacher and service coordinator at the school. “It makes them see how it takes the whole city to put this party on. We do just this tiny, teeny part of it, but that’s what it takes.”
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