New Orleans, that food-loving city, is open for tourism, but a group of chefs got to see a very different side of the Big Easy when they volunteered for CulinaryCorps, billed as Peace Corps for cooks. The program takes culinary professionals to NOLA for a week-long stint of “voluntourism,” as they cook free meals, help with the newly opened farmers’ markets, assist at the Edible Schoolyard, and spend time in the kitchens of local restaurants and food processing plants.

The participants were stunned and moved by what they saw. As Kim O’Donnel, writing for the Washington Post food blog A Mighty Appetite, reports:

Nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi are still in bad shape—of the mind blowing variety. There are neighborhoods and towns that remain deserted, blocks and miles of homes leveled or left in shambles. There are people still living hand to mouth who can’t survive without the assistance of relief services and three hot meals a day. In the richest country in the world, in an oil-rich state, in a city known for convention business and all-night partying, people are hungry and living in trailer parks.

One ray of hope is CulinaryCorps, a new program founded by Christine Carroll, a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and a former AmeriCorps volunteer. Her hope was to mobilize people with a culinary background to help out, with each member raising funds for his or her own participation.

The first CulinaryCorps trip took place in March, and was such a profound experience for those involved that several of the tour participants are planning to relocate to New Orleans permanently.

Gerald San Jose, who documented his experience on his blog, Foodite, said, “I had no idea it [the trip] would be as great as it is. Or no idea it would be so emotional.” As an article in the local Times-Picayune reports, “People gave to the chefs, too. Corps members were pulled aside and given recipes, for Mother’s gumbo and Grandmother’s gumbo. They were given many tips on places to go and eat, places to visit and see.”

A second CulinaryCorps trip has just returned from New Orleans, including aforementioned Washington Post food writer Kim O’Donnel, food blogger and writer Jessica Su, and San Jose.

More trips are planned for this year and next. As O’Donnel writes in her coverage of the trip, “I am humbled, I am inspired and I am catapulted into action. I am forever changed, and I will be going back, again and again.”

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