Widespread Panic gives back with Josh Stack

In February, the State of Georgia’s House of Representatives and Senate passed resolutions in honor of the band’s 25 years of music, service, charity and longevity.

Have you ever been to a trippy canned-food drive? If not, here’s an example from an event organized by Widespread Panic’s own John Bell and The Sautee Community Association.

Four months ago, a massive black-and-white labyrinth created from hanging colored spotlights shined on the floor of a gymnasium in Sautee, Ga. People entered the light-maze with a canned good, placing it somewhere along their walk. The physical labyrinth of food was then collected by The Foodbank of Northeast Georgia. 

Widespread Panic is currently on its spring tour, and will continue to host food drives at all the April shows (it is also the band’s 25th anniversary since its start in Athens, Ga.). 

Such charitable efforts have been part of the band’s fan base since 1999, when Panic Fans for Food was created. Its founder? Joshua Stack, current marketing coordinator of Asheville’s MANNA FoodBank.

“Hunger is a universal problem we can all relate to,” says Stack. “Hunger has a cure.” With this belief in mind, Stack decided to bring this cause to the forefront of the music he loved.

The food drives he proposed to Panic would be focused locally; all donations would go to residents of the immediate counties the food banks worked with. Panic accepted, and the first food drive was held at a 1999 New Orleans show. The food drives grew to become a staple at each show. “The [food drives] became a way to address local issues and affect change where we were,” says Stack. “It is a way of giving back to the cities the band played at, and from there a relationship grew.”

Panic Fans for Food has raised more than 13 tons of food, generated more than $70,000 and worked with food banks in 28 different cities. The organization was called to the international spotlight at the 2002 Jammy Awards, when Joshua Stack won the Mimi Fishman Community Service Award for outstanding fan-based services.

“When people become proactive, things start to change,” Stack says. “To see that continue to happen, and when people invest in the cause and are proud of it — that’s the seed-change you want.”

In 2008, Stack moved to Asheville and was offered a job with MANNA FoodBank as the communications and marketing coordinator. It was then that Panic Fans for Food moved from the hands of the fans into the hands of the musicians. John Bell and Widespread Panic took the reins of the organization.

The upcoming Asheville Widespread Panic food drives will distribute to the 16 counties MANNA serves. Feeding America reports that over 106,000 Western North Carolinians (or one in six) receive food through MANNA’s network. (MANNA FoodBank is a member of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization.)

“If we didn’t need to distribute 9 million pounds across these counties, we wouldn’t,” Stack says. “My ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business.” Though Stack works full time with MANNA, he still attends food drives “for old time’s sake” and checks in to make sure things are still running as they should be.

With so much of the population in need of food assistance, there are many working to support this cause. Thanks to bands like Widespread Panic and their dedicated fans, music is being used to give a meaningful voice to and generate awareness about the major problems citizens are facing.

— John McDermott can be reached at jmcdermott@warren-wilson.edu.

who: Widespread Panic, with special guests J.J. Grey and Mofro

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