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Culture Aid NOLA provides meals to over 95K people in the New Orleans community

Launched in 2020, a small nonprofit organization is feeding thousands through a no-barrier food distribution model designed to make meals available to anyone who needs them amid growing food insecurity.

By Nelli Veletyan

metrics

  • 95K
  • food-insecure individuals served in New Orleans
  • 200
  • volunteer sign-ups
  • 10
  • food distribution partner organizations

When COVID-19 arrived in New Orleans, it transformed the lives of those working in the city’s tourism industry overnight. Musicians, restaurant staff, hospitality workers and countless others, many of whom had already been struggling with low-wage jobs, saw their industry come to a sudden standstill as restrictions on travel and events turned away millions of visitors.

As the devastation unfolded in the city, Erica Chomsky-Adelson sprang to action to help those in her community struggling with food insecuritymany for the first time. With over ten years in the disaster response space, Chomsky-Adelson had a strong network of peers who she knew could help. What started as “a Google form, a conference call, and a dream” manifested into 500 meals distributed to their community within their first few days of volunteering. A few days after that, it was 750 meals. A few days more, and that number jumped to 5,000.

Reflecting on their rapid growth to meet the demand, Chomsky-Adelson says, “Something of this scale isn’t necessarily what any of us set out to do at the beginning, but as we got involved in the work, we realized that with traditional food banks, food pantries, food security systems, there's a lot of paperwork. You have to show ID, make an appointment, provide a copy of your lease, proof of income. . . during COVID-19, there's a lot of people who are new to hunger. They've never been here before. They don't know where to go. They don't know how to get there. And very importantly, they don't want anyone to know. There's so much shame around food insecurity—[the misconception that] you're not a good provider, you can't feed your family. And we know that that's not true. Everyone needs a little help and we shouldn't be out there asking people to prove that they're poor enough to deserve to eat.”

With so many of the individuals their work touched being new to food insecurity, Chomsky-Adelson knew the situation called for a sustainable logistical model to provide no-barrier foodmeaning that anyone, regardless of background or situationwould have access to food, no questions asked. Soon after, a friend who’d worked with NationBuilder before helped the team set up an account, and Culture Aid NOLA was born. 

Feature
  • Built-in action pages

  • Organizations use NationBuilder to create effective petitions, volunteer sign-up pages, and more in minutes—with no coding required.

At first, they put up just one blog-style page to break down their work, but as their efforts took off, the small nonprofit embraced everything from email features to donation pages to tagging and filters, which helped them get a clear view of their rapidly growing volunteer base.

On how the tools have helped transform their efforts, Chomsky-Adelson says, “There is just absolutely no way that we would be where we are now without the tools. . . Being able to do direct payment processing through the website without fifteen extra steps, to have that kind of CRM functionality without a full Salesforce implementation, [to be able to] schedule volunteers and follow up with them directly... all this stuff that an organization of our size and capacity really would not be able to do if it wasn't built into the website with one place to manage it, one place to see the social feeds, the activity, the dashboard, the donations, to be able to automatically tag people who both donate and volunteer—I mean, it's amazing.”

The tools have also allowed the team to put in place an on-site COVID exposure safety plan. After seeing other organizations struggle with having to fully shut down their operation for two weeks at a time post-exposure, Culture Aid NOLA knew they couldn’t leave their community members without food if faced with the same situation. 

“We're prepared to stand down that entire shift for two weeks and swap other people in and keep running. The only reason we're able to do that is because we can go into NationBuilder, pull up a list of everyone who signed up for that shift and send them a text blast within hours of us finding out that something happened. And that level of localized contact tracing really makes our people feel safe. They know that if something happens, we will call them, we will email them and we will text them, and we know exactly who was there . . .  It's huge, being able to provide that for our volunteers means that our volunteers continue to come out and help us serve people,” says Chomsky-Adelson.

To date, the organization has served 95,000 community members and counting. Their ability to grow so rapidly has also been thanks to several partnerships with other community organizations who’ve stepped up to help with food distribution. 

“When we started going out we said, ‘Okay, well, we know how to do X, Y, and Z. We know how to set up a supply chain. We know how to run a point of distribution. We know how to organize volunteers. We can do these things.’ And then the community essentially said, ‘Yes, we need that. But also we need it to be easy. We need it to be accessible. We need it to be regular.’ And we said, ‘Okay, we can do that too. If you'll come and pick up the food, we'll go get the food for you.’"

Now, as they look ahead to a year without Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, they know the demand for their work will only continue to grow until travel and tourism fully recover. But the Culture Aid NOLA team is fired up to keep growing their own work through the digital tools that have helped drive their impact thus farto meet the growing needs of their beloved community, and preserve the unique culture of New Orleans in doing so.

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