Louisianans Hurt By Spill Queue For Free Groceries

Channak Khath fills out a form to receive a $100 food voucher. i

Channak Khath, the wife of a shrimp fisherman, is surrounded by her children while she fills out a form to receive a $100 food voucher in Port Sulphur, La., last month. The Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans is distributing the vouchers to families affected by the BP oil spill. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty Images
Channak Khath fills out a form to receive a $100 food voucher.

Channak Khath, the wife of a shrimp fisherman, is surrounded by her children while she fills out a form to receive a $100 food voucher in Port Sulphur, La., last month. The Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans is distributing the vouchers to families affected by the BP oil spill.

John Moore/Getty Images

In areas hit hard by the Gulf oil spill, some families are already in desperate financial straits. Even before the spill, many were living near the edge, their savings depleted by Hurricane Katrina.

For those who fish for a living, the spill has cut off both their source of income and a major source of food.

At St. Anthony's Church in Lafitte, La., people started lining up at 4 a.m., even though the doors weren't set to open until 9 a.m. They were there for free $100 grocery gift cards.

"You think we'd be sitting in these lines for five hours for $100 in food if we didn't need it? None of us would be here," Diane Poche says.

Until a month ago, Poche, 61, worked with her husband, who has been a commercial fisherman all his life. But now they can't fish, and Poche says they're forced to rely on the BP claims process for their entire income.

"I don't have any money coming in my house, period," she says. "My June bills have been due and past due. It don't look like BP cares about our June bills."

So, she brought a lawn chair and lined up early. Poche sits with a group of women who all seem to know each other. They're well put together and you could easily imagine them sitting on the sidelines at a kids' soccer game, but instead, they're in the church cafeteria waiting for a handout.

"They're not used to getting help, assistance," says Steve Lenahan with Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the group coordinating the giveaway. "They're usually self-sufficient. But this is a new situation for them and something that — it's just frustrating for them."

Money Running Out

Catholic Charities has set up five community assistance centers in southern Louisiana to deal with the fallout of the spill. The grocery cards are paid for in part by a $1 million grant from BP. Company spokesman Curtis Thomas says it's a safety net.

"If they need immediate assistance, and they need groceries for today, and if the claim process doesn't work for them for some reason — either they don't have the paperwork or they haven't gotten a number yet — please come down and get a voucher from Catholic Charities," Thomas says. "They are in place so that people do have emergency assistance."

The BP grant ran out last week and hasn't yet been renewed. But Catholic Charities is still giving away food cards, offering counseling services and paying up to $200 toward a bill per family. Lenahan says the group has helped nearly 10,000 people since May 1. But every time it gives out food cards — once a week at each site — it runs out and has to turn people away.

"We have limited resources," he says. "Unfortunately, we can't help everybody, but they can come back again next week and reapply."

He says the demand just keeps growing. Rod Thomassie is holding a piece of paper with the number 77 on it, indicating his place in line.

"They're only giving 75 out," he says. "I might get lucky, I don't know."

Thomassie has three kids to feed. He used to bring Gulf seafood home from his job as a deckhand, but because of the spill he hasn't worked in seven weeks.

"To tell a child that you know that you don't have no food. I don't have no work ..." he says. "Last week, they turned around, they cut my lights off, my water. I haven't had any work. Good thing for these people here, and my mom and my dad. They turned around and forked up a little money to help me turn my lights and my water back on."

Thomassie did luck out. He got a grocery card. But he says he really just wants to get back to work. He dropped out of high school to start working on a boat — fishing is all he knows. And the oil spill has taken that away, at least for now.

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