BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
People in Southwest Louisiana are used to lines. They line up for the first crawfish of the season, to buy local delicacies like boudin and cracklins; and they form lines for miles along Mardi Gras parade routes.
But COVID-19 created an economic buzzsaw in the region locals affectionately call Acadiana, and those lines changed overnight. They still line up for food in Lafayette. But it is often in the form of donations from people like Eric Melton, the facility manager at Second Harvest Food Bank of Acadiana.
Melton, a noncommissioned officer in the Air Force Reserve with the 307th Bomb Wing, seems perpetually upbeat, his voice carries a sense of optimism and confidence.
But a sense of worry belies that tone when he speaks of the situation in the area.
“The unemployment rate around here has skyrocketed and people are simply running out of food,” he said with a sigh.
The new normal
Melton is used to taking care of people as a civilian and as an Airman. He has been with Second Harvest for over a year and his military duties at the Barksdale Air Force Base command post require him to deliver critical, accurate messages to the entire installation.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how he feeds the people of the region.
Second Harvest of Acadiana is designed as a food conduit. The group collects donations from large retailers, stores them, and ensures their efficient distribution to area schools, agencies, and churches.
Only in the most extreme circumstances do Melton and his team have to resort to creating public food distribution sites. Now, it is a regular occurrence.
“The need around here is growing big time,” he said. “We handed out over 80,000 pounds of food in only two-and-a-half hours during our last distribution.”
The direct food distributions are so big, they require police to control traffic flow. Melton and his team can handle the first 700 cars at each site, but the lines stretch far beyond the parking lots in which they work.
“Once a car is in the parking lot, we can take care of them,” he said. “But the sheriff’s deputy has to let car 700 know they are the last to get food.”
The lines are filled with people that have never had to ask for help before. Furloughed hospital workers, small business owners, and laid-off workers fill the long lines.
The roads in Lafayette, one of the largest cities in the region, tell the tale of economic calamity.
Johnston Street, Lafayette’s main artery, is normally so clogged with shoppers and business owners locals cringe at the thought of driving it. The road was the most difficult part of Melton’s route home from work. He now finds its four lanes empty.
“It used to take me 30 minutes to make it home, now I can do it in 15,” he said.
The other lines
Signs of hope are emerging, though, thanks to Melton’s desire to see the region revive.
He has used his military skillset to form another kind of line; a steady stream of volunteers. Early in the pandemic, Melton reached out to the Louisiana Army National Guard, looking to help his overworked staff.
They responded quickly, sending Guardsmen to bolster Second Harvest’s ranks and help distribute food from its warehouse in Lafayette.
“We have a bond between the services and I was able to speak the lingo, which really helped,” explained Melton of the on-going support.
The help is desperately needed. Second Harvest has seen the amount of food it distributes each month triple from approximately 300,000 pounds to over one million.
Melton also keeps a small army of civilian volunteers motivated, using lessons learned in the military. The same ideals that motivate the Command Post team at Barksdale, keep his group of volunteers moving in what can be a difficult, and sometimes thankless, job.
“We do an important job in the Command Post, but no one ever sees us,” he said. “But we are a tight-knit group because we know the work is essential.”
His band of employees, soldiers, and volunteers help to feed the physical hunger of his fellow Louisianians, but Melton worries about a deeper hunger, one burning deep in the culture of Southwest Louisiana.
Another kind of hunger
Melton came to Acadiana after meeting his future wife in his home state of Texas. The couple moved to Lafayette shortly after getting married and Melton began to glean lessons about the people of Acadiana.
He learned they have an independent streak going back nearly 300 years. Many families still trace their lineage back to settlers who arrived in the area after being banished from their ancestral homelands for refusing allegiance to unjust monarchies in Europe. They still fly the Acadian flag, separate and distinct from the state banner.
He learned the people love to celebrate life and family. Time in Acadiana is marked by family functions and which festivals are happening.
And he learned they were tough. Eyes roll at reports of hurricanes moving in the Gulf of Mexico. Anything below Category 3 is regarded as a mere nuisance.
But COVID-19 is unlike anything they have seen. It ripped the social fabric holding people together; a gut punch no storm had ever delivered.
“People here are very positive and friendly; they like to hug a lot, but you don’t see that as much anymore,” said Melton. “It (the pandemic) has taken a toll on them.”
Ironically, the thought of hurting a family member is the very thing that keeps them apart. Though the two most populous parishes in the region account for fewer than three percent of the states confirmed COVID-19 cases, the risk of sickening a loved one makes the statistics pointless.
“There is nothing my father-in-law likes better than to have everyone over for a crawfish boil, but we can’t do those things right now,” he said. “We don’t want to take the chance of getting him sick.”
The hunger for the connection with family and friends is great, but Melton works hard at feeding it the same way he fights to feed physical hunger. He continuously falls back on his military background for answers.
To keep the social and emotional stress at bay, Melton concentrates on taking care of his co-workers in the same way he takes care of his fellow Airmen.
“I’ll stop by and get donuts for everyone in the morning and make sure we all just have a chance to talk and be together before the workday begins,” he said.
It may sound trivial, but the camaraderie generated by the gesture has kept his workers and the small army of volunteers focused on the mission, not the expanding workload.
Like in the military, Melton uses the power of example to help raise morale among his troops. He begins his days at 6 a.m. and ends them well after his last driver has returned from their deliveries.
The schedule makes for a 55-hour workweek, but Melton finds it worth the effort.
“I’m salaried, so I can go home when I want to, but I believe the drivers are grateful to see me working just as long as they do,” he said.
Back to life
Melton believes the people of Southwest Louisiana will bounce back from the economic and social effects of the pandemic; and is dedicated to Second Harvest’s work in that recovery.
“We are making the community stronger and it gives me a sense of pride to be part of that,” he said.
For now, Melton and his team continue to help with the lines of hungry in front of them. He continues to feed bodies and minds until the lines change back to the ones he knew before COVID-19.