San Antonio-based nonprofit The Chow Train spent three afternoons feeding hungry residents living near the devastated city of Rockport, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall last weekend.

“We knew we’d eventually go to where the help was needed,” Chow Train founder Joan Cheever told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “That was an easy decision.”

The Chow Train has been feeding hungry, food insecure, and homeless populations in San Antonio since 2005. Cheever was expecting to provide free hot meals to San Antonians in the aftermath of the tropical storm that could have dropped as much as 22 inches of rain on the city last week. While San Antonio was left largely unscathed when Harvey turned to the northeast, areas surrounding Rockport were devastated by days of heavy rainfall and strong winds.

Members of the U.S. Army and U.S. National Guard have established several “pods” around Rockport – staging areas where guardsmen and volunteers are distributing water, ice, and ready-to-eat meals. But in Pod 3, positioned on an Aransas Pass Dollar General parking lot, Cheever and her Chow Train team members offered another meal option with a simple question.

Would you rather [have] a [meal ready to eat] or a hot plate of spaghetti?”

Underneath the shade of a red tent, volunteers scooped servings of pulled pork, spaghetti, bread rolls, and salad onto disposable plastic plates. Of the thousands of meals distributed by the Chow Train over the course of its three-day stay in Aransas Pass, Cheever said the salad was the favorite.

We went through five cases of salad [on Tuesday],” she said. “Our salads have feta cheese on them, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs, and this great dressing.”

Cheever likes to refine the meals she serves, and she strives to provide food that is as enjoyable as it is fresh. Insistent on providing nutritious meals, she also likes to give her guests options. Cheever said that if someone turned down a salad, for instance, she would offer them a vegetable such as broccoli or cauliflower instead. Beyond serving meals for the people affected by Harvey, the Chow Train also provided dog food for four-legged residents.

The distribution efforts gave some relief to a recovering community, members of the Davila family said. They had spotted the food truck on their way to the distribution pod, and were served by Chow Train on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“It’s good … it’s delicious, actually,” said Leslie Davila, who came to the distribution center with her husband, two children, and puppy.

The Davila Family waits in line to be served pulled pork sandwiches and salad from the Chow Train in Aransas Pass, Texas.
The Davila family waits in line for pulled pork sandwiches and salad from the Chow Train in Aransas Pass. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cheever and her fellow volunteers were surrounded by a line of cars that stretched through the parking lot and into the adjacent street, waiting to enter the distribution center. She described entering the city carefully, driving over downed electric lines before National Guardsmen cleared the street.

It was personally heartbreaking to see all the devastation,” Cheever said. “It looked kind of like a cross between a hurricane and a tornado.”

This is the 11th time that Cheever has taken her truck into a disaster zone. Her normal operations were made difficult by the lack of services in the area. Warren Monnich, one of the volunteers, had to use bottled water to fill the truck’s 20-gallon water tank as there was no running water in the area. Grocery and convenience stores were closed – either boarded up, damaged, or without electricity. The roof of the Dollar General in front of the Chow Train was on the verge of collapsing.

Chow Train members came to Aransas Pass assuming they would find lodging. The option they were given was an eight-bunk cell at the local jail, which had been evacuated on Friday.

“It was a pretty surreal experience,” Cheever said.

Despite the hinderances and peculiarities, Cheever and National Guardsmen alike said spirits among the residents were high. Serving a recovering community, Cheever sees the need to offer something beyond a plate of food.

The other thing the Chow Train gives are hugs and a good ear,” she said. “Because people just need to share their story about where they were when they rode it out and what happened.”

After three days of distribution, the Chow Train ran out of food supplies. Those interested in donating to the nonprofit may do so here.

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Jeffrey Sullivan

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.