For 37 years, Joe Powell lived by the letter carrier’s creed, letting neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night get in the way of delivering Baton Rougeans’ mail.
Though he's now retired, Powell's commitment to that motto was strong as ever as rain poured on Saturday — the day of the national Stamp Out Hunger food drive, which he coordinates locally. With a smile on his face, Powell helped carriers arriving at a post office on Perkins Road empty their trucks of bag after bag of canned goods they had collected along their routes.
Carriers across the country have encouraged people to leave nonperishable food items by their mailboxes, picked up the donations and distributed them to food banks each spring for the past 27 years. Powell has been part of the local effort benefiting the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank for most of that time, even after retiring in 2012.
“It gives me a good feeling knowing I’m helping,” Powell said. “I know this is something that needs to be done.”
He knows that because, as a mail carrier, he had a unique window into people’s everyday lives.
“The mailman is really the eyes and ears of every community, six days of week,” he said. “If you want to find out what’s going on in a particular neighborhood — if they see cars at someone’s house they don’t normally see or something — they know everyone’s business. The postal service is really community oriented."
In the nearly four decades he spent delivering letters and birthday cards and bills and packages to homes throughout the city, Powell saw the effects of hunger and poverty firsthand.
“I delivered in areas where I saw a great need,” Powell said. Children often came up to him asking for a dollar.
Once, on a Saturday in the mid-1980s, Powell asked a boy who’d requested a dollar what he would do with the money. He still clearly remembers the child’s reply: “I’m going to get me something to eat.”
Powell had just bought a po’boy and a cold soft drink, and “I just gave it to him.”
“The little kid took that sandwich and ran like he had found a pot of gold,” Powell recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘This kid was really hungry.’ ”
The cause of feeding the hungry has been close to his heart ever since. When the National Association of Letter Carriers launched the Stamp Out Hunger drive a few years later, Powell was eager to get involved.
Over the years, Stamp Out Hunger has netted more than 1 billion pounds of donations for food banks from coast to coast, according to the initiative’s website.
In the 11-parish area served by the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, postal workers gathered about 60,000 pounds of food last year, which amounts to about 48,000 meals, Powell said. Saturday’s donations won’t be weighed until later in the week.
“It’s one of the biggest food drives, if not the biggest food drive, that we do as an organization,” said Josie Bonnette, the Food Bank’s public relations and communications coordinator.
Food Bank officials were expecting lower participation than usual on Saturday because of the rainy weather. But any help is welcome, Bonnette said.
Client demand will likely spike once schools let out for the summer and parents have to feed children who eat cafeteria meals for most of the year, she said. The Food Bank’s supplies are already running low.
After raising the alarm about food shortages heading into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank has been …
“We are getting back to a nice level, but with summer coming, it’s probably going to fall again,” she said.
Bonnette is new to the Food Bank, and this is her first year working during Stamp Out Hunger. When she met Powell to talk over plans for this year’s event, she was struck by his enthusiasm.
“He’s definitely very passionate about this, having worked at the post office for so long and wanting to give back to the community,” Bonnette said. “It’s definitely inspiring.”
Powell said it's heartening to see all the donations roll in. Each bag of food means someone took the time to do their part to help the hungry — and that keeps Powell coming back year after year.
“People don’t realize it, but every day in this country — which it shouldn’t be — over 40 million people go to bed not knowing where their next meal is coming from,” he said. “I’m going to do it as long as long as God lets me.”