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Fishing Families in Gulf Region Turn to Fast Food, 'Grind Meats'

by Vicki Smith

POINTE A LA HACHE, La.  -- Grow up on the water, the children of southern Louisiana learn, and you'll never go hungry. As long as you can toss a line, a net or a trap, you can eat - and eat well.

A sign along the highway near Grand Isle, La., on July 11, 2010, lays out the problem many struggling fishing families now face: With their fishing grounds closed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they are forced to find something other than seafood to feed their families. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith) Or you could, until now.

Millions of gallons of oil from the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig have fouled some of the world's richest fishing grounds from Florida to Texas, and even though BP stopped the leak for the first time Thursday, more than a third of the Gulf of Mexico remains closed. For thousands who feed their families from the water, what once seemed like a never-ending, free buffet of high-protein, low-fat shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish is off limits.

It's not that people are starving. With compensation checks from BP and the help of charities such as Second Harvest Food Bank, they're able to stock their pantries with staples - rice and beans, grits and cereal, peanut butter and jelly.

But they're forced to pay for protein they used to get for free. And not the kind they want.

June Demolle ate seafood every night when husband James was harvesting oysters from Black Bay and American Bay. Now, like many in Plaquemines Parish, she struggles to recall her last piece of fish.

"Been at least three weeks," she finally decides.

Instead, the couple cooks up what Demolle derisively calls "grind meats," hot dogs and hamburgers, in a Pointe a la Hache trailer park populated entirely by relatives. She wrinkles her nose, complaining she feels less healthy already.

"I love my fish and my kids love fish," says Demolle, a 58-year-old grandmother who also feeds her daughters and 11 grandchildren. "Every night for dinner. Any kind of fish. All the time."

She refuses to buy it in a store; it's expensive, and it's not local.

Cardboard boxes with donated canned goods sit on the Demolles' kitchen floor, and a weekly $100 grocery store card from Catholic Charities of New Orleans helps stock the refrigerator. But it's hard to accept the help.

"I ain't used to no handout," James Demolle grumbles.

He eats the burgers, but he gets excited when someone in the neighborhood manages to scrounge up a few fish.

"They try to divide it up with everybody," he says. "Everybody's going to get a little piece of something."

In Pointe a la Hache and other small fishing villages that dot the Mississippi River Delta, diet is as intertwined with the water as income. Nearly everyone works in the fishing business or knows someone who does. The few other employment options - shipping, oil rigs and refineries - also depend on access to the water.

For folks who eat their own catch every day, finding the cash to replace those meals can be tough. Second Harvest says 17 percent of the households in the affected parishes were below the poverty level before the spill.

Since May 3, nearly 2,000 people in five affected parishes have applied at mobile sites for assistance averaging $323 a month, says Trey Williams, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. Enrollment in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, jumped 14 percent in St. Bernard Parish between the end of April and the end of June, while Jefferson, Terrebone and Lafourche also saw bumps higher than the statewide increase of 2 percent.

Second Harvest has served more than 200,000 meals in coastal parishes and seen a 25 percent increase in first-time clients. All the new families live in the parishes hit hardest by the spill, spokeswoman Leslie Doles says.

Making matters worse, the spill occurred in what is always a challenging season. Children who get free or reduced meals at school suddenly have to be fed at home, and donations typically fall off during the summer.

Second Harvest gets some food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and tries to offer nutritionally balanced staples, including canned fruits, vegetables and meats. But the spill hasn't been declared a federal emergency, so other commodities typically distributed after a hurricane are not available.

"There's a huge need that was existing in these communities even before the spill, and we're doing our best," Doles says. "But there's not the flow of food coming in to handle this disaster."

Colleen Bosley, of Catholic Charities, says BP PLC provided $750,000 for one month of services after the oil rig exploded and the company's well started gushing. But that money has long since run out, and she's still awaiting word on a second request.

"We're going to be out there whether BP funds us or not," she says, "but the volume we're able to provide is far less."

Dr. Richard Streiffer, a professor at Tulane University's Department of Family and Community Medicine, says it's "very, very unlikely" a change in eating habits will harm anyone's health in the short term. The state already fares poorly in most national health rankings, with high rates of cardiovascular disease that could be linked to diet, drinking or smoking.

"We do have a culture of loving our food, but a lot of it is fried and not the healthiest," he says. "We love fried shrimp and oyster po-boys with mayonnaise."

Dinnertime for Delacroix deckhand Buck Stewart, his wife and two children typically involves crab spaghetti, crab lasagna, gumbo or 6-year-old Jacob's favorite, redfish.

"Right now, we're eating hamburgers and tacos from Taco Bell," the 27-year-old dad says. "We go to Taco Bell and spend $25 and barely get anything, you know?"

Crabber Eric Melerine sometimes finds himself driving 20 miles from Delacroix to the nearest McDonald's in Chalmette, rather than fishing the peaceful waters of Lake Robin and Lake Borgne.

"Everything we cook with is seafood, generation to generation," he says. "Yeah, once in a while a hamburger tastes good, but it's not seafood."

Until this summer, the 56-year-old had never eaten a hot dog, preferring a soft-shell crab. He speaks wistfully of what he's missing - shrimp and grits or a crab omelet for breakfast, shrimp on a bun for lunch, some sauteed shrimp with red beans and rice for dinner.

The freezer he shares with his mother and three sisters holds no more crab or fish. They're down to four bags of shrimp, barely enough for one meal. And he won't be buying any.

"It's hard to find it, and if you do, it's 90 percent imports," Melerine says. "We'll do without."

While 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported from overseas, most domestic shrimp is caught in the Gulf. The Louisiana seafood industry has for years run an aggressive buy-local campaign to battle imports, mostly from Southeast Asia.

When Point a la Hache fisherman Clarence Duplessis was working, wife Bonnie cooked shrimp three or four nights a week.

"We make jambalaya. You can fry 'em. You can smother 'em. You can cook 'em with potatoes. You make shrimp pastas. You put 'em in spaghetti," she says, pausing to laugh. "I sound like Forrest Gump."

Without the staple of her diet, she struggles. Chicken is affordable, but it isn't the same.

"I can make the jambalaya, but it doesn't have shrimp in it, so it doesn't taste as good," she says. "I can't make a gumbo without shrimp. I mean, hello?"

Grocery store shrimp runs an "outrageous" $5 or $6 per pound, and Duplessis can't bring herself to pay for something the Gulf has always served up for free.

She emptied her freezer in the spring, anticipating a fresh haul that never came.

"I loaded an ice chest of shrimp and took it to my daughter in San Antonio," she says, "and now my daughter in San Antonio has shrimp and I don't."

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