St. Mary Parish is a large, waterlogged stretch of land that stretches along the Gulf Coast of south-central Louisiana. It is a predominantly rural parish known primarily for its production of sugarcane. People here are fiercely loyal to their community and to their country. They strive to care for their own and are naturally wary of relying on government assistance to meet their community's needs.
But if the recent economic downturn and loss of jobs have taught us anything, it is that people's lives and livelihoods are fragile, and sometimes even the most self-sufficient among us cannot hedge themselves against life's vicissitudes. When hard times do come, people are more likely to turn to government help (in the form of programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP)to get themselves back on their own feet--even in places such as St. Mary Parish.
Yet since 2010, while the economy has stagnated, residents of St. Mary Parish have been even more likely to fall through the cracks of an already porous safety net. Due to budget cuts at the state level, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS, the agency that administers SNAP) has had to reduce its physical presence in the field, and St. Mary was one of the unlucky parishes to lose its local office. As a result of the closure, residents of the town of Franklin (the parish capital) had to make a 25-mile trip to the nearest office to apply for SNAP in person. For Morgan City residents, it was a 50-mile trip.
Since June of 2011, however, Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana has been bringing the SNAP application closer to home. Our outreach workers have traversed the parish's marshy terrain, and partnered with a host of community-based organizations-- a health clinic, a senior center, a community action agency, and a local tribal government; to highlight the benefits of SNAP and to assist individuals with the SNAP application. Senior citizens and others who may otherwise have skipped meals or foregone crucial medications have gained more convenient access to benefits which, though by no means adequate to cover their food needs, might at least get them through part of the month.
And even as the waters of the Atchafalaya River ebb and flow, the river courses through its primordial home with a quiet strength and an indestructible dignity. Despite the ebbs and flows of modern economic life, the same strength and dignity abide in the people of St. Mary Parish.