A movable feast: MANNA Express initiative delivers fresh food to the hungry

THE DRIVING FORCE: MANNA Express is staffed by volunteers whose deliveries take them as far north as Avery County and as far west as Cherokee County. Pictured, from left, are volunteers Tom Nolan and Burt Siders. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

A pair of box trucks, a committed group of trained volunteers and pallets filled with perishable edibles make up MANNA FoodBank’s newest initiative, MANNA Express. The program began in November 2015 with local deliveries to a handful of partners and agencies in Buncombe County. Over time, it has expanded outward to encompass all 16 counties that MANNA serves — stretching to Avery County in the northeast and as far west as Cherokee County.

One of its goals is to get more nutritious food out faster. “I easily push 60,000 pounds of produce each month,” says Julia Redmon, MANNA’s supervisor over distribution. “Breads, bakery, produce, beverages, meats, yogurt, milk — any kind of excess I got goes out.”

Prior to Express, timing and storage was a major obstacle for many of MANNA’s partners and agencies. “A pantry operating out of a church basement might not have refrigerators or freezers to keep some of these more perishable items,” says Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications at MANNA. But with the Express program, volunteers meet the trucks at a specific site and time to parcel out goods directly to the people who need them.

“One of the unintended side benefits of this program is putting our volunteers in direct contact with the clients we are serving,” says Irani. Whereas most of MANNA’s volunteers spend their days at the distribution center sorting through and organizing food items, Express drivers get a face-to-face look at hunger. “I think that has actually been a more tangible and important part of the MANNA Express program because it’s an educational piece for our volunteers; they also get to interact with people and have these kind of heart-to-heart moments.”

Husband and wife team Bill and Jan Bass are among the volunteers involved with MANNA Express.  Both agree that the interactions are a rewarding aspect of the program. “There was one young man — probably 10 or 11,” recalls Bill. “He had a hurt hand, wrapped up, but he was trying to take boxes that were way too heavy for him. … That kind of hit me, the way that little boy was trying so hard to be a help.” Jan adds, “It is nice to know that in some small way we can make a difference.”

Redmon echoes this sentiment. “It is so rewarding for our volunteers to actually hand food to these people,” she says. “When you see the children and the people from [age] 12 to 82, and they literally are in tears because they get a loaf of bread and a box of food for the week because their food stamps didn’t come in or they got family in town or somebody had to move back in because they lost their job — that help is very rewarding.”

Recently, MANNA Express received a $25,000 grant through UnitedHealthcare. This is the first major investment in the program — a significant step, Irani says, for an initiative that she believes can “really take off, if properly funded.”

The check’s presentation coincides with Hunger Action Month — a national campaign designed to bring the issue of hunger to the forefront of people’s minds. Throughout September, MANNA will host a series of events to encourage people to learn more about food insecurity and encourage involvement in local efforts to help end hunger.

“One in six people in our area are at risk for food insecurity,” says Irani. “And one in four children don’t have regular access to food. Those stats tend to be a little higher than the national average, especially when you boil it down to specific communities.”

Lack of access to healthy food is a major component of hunger. Irani points out that individuals without vehicles who live in remote areas without public transportation must spend a large portion of their day planning and carrying out the logistics of acquiring food. On top of that, she adds, many of these more isolated locations or neighborhoods without grocery stores — also known as food deserts — do not have food pantries. “That is our ongoing focus,” she says. “To dial into those communities at the highest risk with the most needs.”

While improving access to food is one thing MANNA Express aims for, another goal is to continue delivering the most frequently requested item: fresh produce. “One of the important positions of MANNA Express is that its focus is on nutrition rather than just empty calories,” says Irani. “We just recently expanded more climate control space here in our warehouses so that we could actually source more fresh food, and MANNA Express is a way for us to make sure we can move that fresh, healthy food to people who really need it.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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