Every few minutes, a mallet struck a gong in the gymnasium, followed by cheers and applause. Each sounding of the gong, on loan from the Asheville Symphony, indicated that 5,000 meals had been assembled and packaged for hungry families in Western North Carolina.
The sound rang down the halls of the Reuter Family YMCA in Biltmore Park on March 22, when more than 800 volunteers gathered to package fortified mac-and-cheese meals. With $50,000 raised by the Rotary Club’s Rotarians Against Hunger, the volunteers packaged 215,000 meals.
The annual volunteer event launched five years ago, with the meals shipped overseas. But with the high cost of shipping and the need for food assistance in communities closer to home, organizers and participants decided to keep it local.
At 19.3 percent, North Carolina is one of seven states with a statistically significant higher rate of food insecurity than the national average (16.4 percent). According to the 2013 Map the Meal Gap study, 14.9 percent of all people and 27 percent of children living in MANNA FoodBank’s service area are considered food insecure.
To help address such high rates of child poverty and food insecurity in the region, MANNA began the Packs for Kids program. Ten percent of the meals packaged on March 22 were placed into backpacks at schools and sent home with children for the weekend. The remainder were given to MANNA’s partner agencies for distribution throughout WNC.
When organizers decided to distribute locally, they switched from fortified rice to fortified mac-and-cheese meals. “Mac and cheese is our most requested item, especially among kids,” says Donna Ensley, MANNA’s chief development officer. “So MANNA is excited that Rotarians Against Hunger would change its menu.” Each meal provides six servings and, with added soy protein and vitamins, the mac and cheese is considered a nutritionally complete meal, says Ensley.
But the Rotarians Against Hunger event did not focus entirely on local hunger. Money raised for the event also goes toward Seed Programs International, a local organization that sends fruit and vegetable seeds to countries struggling with hunger.
While mac and cheese may be a good meal to donate to local families, explains SPI’s President Peter Marks, it may not be suitable for those in developing countries. WNC, Marks says, is “a different setting. Here you have people who have a cooking stove that they can plug in, generally, and you can’t count on that in other places.” When planted in gardens, seeds distributed in the coming months could produce 10 times the servings of all mac-and-cheese meals packaged that day, says Marks. “We’re helping people help themselves by giving them seeds they can grow,” he says. Last year, seeds were sent to North Korea, Cameroon and Honduras, and SPI will decide where to send this year’s seeds within the next few months.
According to Freddy Earley, co-chair of the South Asheville Rotary Club, the Rotarians Against Hunger event grows awareness for the need for food assistance both at home and abroad. “A lot of us don’t realize the need,” says Earley, who has participated in the food-packing event for the last three years. “We produce enough food to feed people around the world. Distributing it — that’s the challenge.”
Church groups, individuals from across the region and groups of coworkers volunteered their time and funds to the event. Kendra Fryer, who taped up and packaged boxes to put onto trucks and be distributed says, “It’s important that we’re helping home first and then reaching out further.”