On February 25, New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras, an event that brought together almost 400,000 people. One month later, the city was one of the biggest Covid-19 hot spots in the country: It reported more than 2,300 cases on March 26. Soon studies started linking the city's holiday parades and parties to the spike.
Devin De Wulf was part of the party, as he has been for the past decade as the founder of the Krewe of Red Beans. A krewe is an organization that marches in parades and creates floats during Carnival season, known as Mardi Gras season outside of New Orleans.
The Krewe of Red Beans is an homage to the traditional dish of red beans and rice. De Wulf's krewe is known for making suits and costumes using hundreds of pounds of dried beans to create mosaic-type designs. There are about 300 krewe members, while about 10,000 people come to watch their parade, he says.
"What distinguishes our parade from others is we are super kid-friendly," De Wulf says. "And we are open to everyone feeling like they are part of the parade."
Video by David Fang
The Krewe of Red Beans marches on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras because Mondays are traditionally the day of beans and rice in New Orleans.
"It's the best Monday of the year," De Wulf says. "We do a three-mile walk and there is live music and it's very joyous and wonderful."
As De Wulf saw his city start to suffer and the number of coronavirus cases rise, he funneled his organizational skills toward another goal: feeding the people of New Orleans.
The idea came to De Wulf, a stay-at-home dad, by way of his wife, Annelies De Wulf, who is an ER doctor. "My wife came home on March 16 and told me how a nurse had brought in cookies and shared them with everybody. Her telling me how that was one of the highlights of her day was the 'aha' moment," he says.
He emailed the krewe an idea: Let's order food from a local restaurant and send it to a hospital.
The idea eventually became Feed the Frontline NOLA, a charity that ordered food from local restaurants and delivered it to health-care workers. It started with one $60 order and ballooned as donations started rolling in.
"We were able to raise over $1 million dollars and send out 90,000 meals to basically every hospital in our city," De Wulf says.
Next, De Wulf turned his focus to one of New Orleans's most iconic demographics: artists and musicians. The initiative, called Feed the Second Line, pays young musicians and artists to deliver groceries to older musicians and artists.
"The elders are the ones who teach the younger ones how to do the culture," De Wulf says. "If we were to lose an elder because of something like Covid, we would lose a lot of knowledge."
Every week, Feed the Second Line pays eight young musicians $100 per hour, the average pay of a musician in New Orleans, according to De Wulf, to bring groceries or takeout food from a local restaurant to 18 New Orleans "elders." On any given day, a young musician can earn up to $400 and an older musician gets food for free without having to put themselves at risk by going to the store.
One of the elders served by Feed the Second Line is Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, the Grand Marshall for life of the Krewe of Red Beans. Johnson, 81, says he often receives healthy meals, canned goods, and sometimes cabbage and potatoes.
"It's been just fantastic and really helpful," he says. "Devin always tells me, 'Whatever you need, just call.'"
De Wulf's focus on artists and musicians comes during a time when many of them are struggling financially: Sixty-two percent of artists report being fully unemployed, according to a survey of 15,700 artists by Americans for the Arts. The average financial loss per artist in 2020 is estimated to be $24,000.
By starting Feed the Second Line, De Wulf created jobs for those who have been hurt by the recession and pandemic. "They don't have a lot of opportunity to work right now, and many of them have a hard time getting unemployment if they are self-employed or independent contractors," he says.
The initiative is especially close to De Wulf's heart because the distinct New Orleans culture is why he moved to the city.
Originally from Charleston, he visited New Orleans with the "wave" of people who came to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, he says. His plan was to be a volunteer photographer and take high-quality images for nonprofits who could then use the photographs to get more donations.
"That was just a way I could use my skill set to help out, and in doing that I got completely stuck here," he says. "I had seen music and eaten delicious food. The spirit of people here is different than in other parts of America. It is a super-vibrant, loving culture. It almost doesn't feel like America, I guess."
Now 15 years later, De Wulf is trying to employ and feed the artists who inspired him to stay in the first place.
The way to make an impact, De Wulf says, is to begin with the details. "I suggest people really think small about their community, their neighborhood, or the immediate area where they live," he says, adding, "Nobody cares about that place more than you, because you live there."
Robin Roberts, 62, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Arkansas, nominated De Wulf as a Homegrown Hero. She says his actions prompted her to get more involved in her own community after her friend passed away from the coronavirus in late March.
"He's inspired others to get out of their bad mood and depression and do something to make things better," she says. Now she volunteers at her church to pack lunches and works with the NOLA Tree Project and the Second Harvest Food Bank to deliver meals around the city.
As coronavirus cases in Louisiana continue to rise, De Wulf wants to continue Feed the Second Line. But he looks forward to eventually being a "regular old parade organizer and stay-at-home dad."
"Hopefully we get back to normal life," he says, "and we can parade again one day."
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