Call to action: WNC hunger-relief agencies celebrate progress, promote awareness

FEEDING MORE KIDS: For two years, Adam Lefevre, age 4, has volunteered at MANNA FoodBank with his mother and brother assembling MANNA Packs for Kids, which are distributed weekly to food-insecure school children in Western North Carolina. A $50,000 grant has allowed the program to expand for this school year to reach hundreds more kids in need.
FEEDING MORE KIDS: For two years, Adam Lefevre, age 4, has volunteered at MANNA FoodBank with his mother and brother assembling MANNA Packs for Kids, which are distributed weekly to food-insecure school children in Western North Carolina. A $50,000 grant has allowed the program to expand for this school year to reach hundreds more kids in need. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

September marks the 10th anniversary of hunger-relief organization Feeding America‘s annual Hunger Action Month initiative. It also denotes a decade of MANNA FoodBank’s involvement in that effort, coordinating a full month each year of special events and educational opportunities aimed at eradicating food insecurity in Western North Carolina.

Two years ago, MANNA’s Hunger Action Month activities centered on a $3 million capital campaign that resulted in extensive renovations and upgrades at the organization’s headquarters on Swannanoa River Road. Those projects, including a 400 percent freezer space expansion and a 171 percent increase in cooler space, significantly elevated the amount of fresh food MANNA can distribute throughout its 16-county service area.  In 2016, more than 68 percent of the food MANNA handed out was healthy staples, including meat and other proteins, dairy products and fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit. With those enhancements now in place, MANNA is celebrating other accomplishments.

One project that is getting underway as Hunger Action Month begins is a major expansion of the MANNA Packs for Kids program. This 10-year-old initiative discreetly sends bags of food home with needy schoolchildren at 170 sites throughout WNC on Fridays to help feed families through the weekend. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Morgan Stanley Foundation, those crucial weekly care packages will make it into the homes of a few hundred more families than in years past.

For much of its existence, the MANNA Packs program has reached about 10 percent of the over 40,000 children in MANNA’s service area who receive free school lunch — the neediest 10 percent as identified by school counselors, teachers and administrators. The new funding allows MANNA to distribute the packs to an additional 384 students each week, which is a very big deal, says MANNA marketing director Kara Irani. “We have our normal avenues of funding [for the program],” says Irani. “But this is a big-impact piece that’s actually letting us expand for the entire school year. … Increasing to 12 percent is a pretty big jump for us.”

A new effort scheduled specifically for Hunger Action Month creates a new funding stream for MANNA by forging partnerships with Asheville’s booming hospitality industry. Tapping into local tourism presents a fundraising challenge for nonprofits, as visitors to the city are unfamiliar with and not often focused on Asheville’s needs. But throughout September, MANNA’s Sweet Dreams, Full Plates initiative will enlist 29 Asheville hotels and their guests in an extended competitive fundraising effort.

To participate, hotel guests can choose to forgo stay-over services by displaying a door-hanger that reads, “We Fed a Family.” For each room that selects that option, the hotel will donate $2 to MANNA — enough to provide food for seven meals. Participating hotels will track their donations, and the winner will be recognized on a billboard.

Last year, Biltmore Farms Hotels implemented the concept as a pilot program during the holidays at three of its hotels. That experiment brought in around $1,500 — enough for MANNA to provide food for 5,250 meals. This year’s goal is $10,000.

“MANNA has enjoyed support from the hospitality sector for decades,” says Alisa Hixson, MANNA’s director of corporate engagement and signature events. “This innovative partnership marks a strategic opportunity to enlarge the circle of support and engage visitors to our region who desire to partake in our unique offerings and leave something in return.”

Meanwhile, a new effort is set to streamline the distribution process for food-access agencies and other service organizations throughout Haywood and Jackson counties. This summer, a $15,000 grant — again, from the Morgan Stanley Foundation — allowed for the purchase and installation of a refrigerated cargo container, dubbed a “produce pod,” at Haywood Christian Ministry in Waynesville.

The pod, which Irani says she believes is the first of its kind in North Carolina, is designed to act as an area hub for donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. Previously, explains HCM Executive Director Anthony Price, all large donations of fresh produce — even those coming from stores in Waynesville — had to be delivered to MANNA’s main warehouses in Asheville. The individual agencies would then have to coordinate trucks and drivers to trek down the mountain and retrieve the goods for storage and distribution.

In addition to saving small agencies valuable volunteer hours and the expense of gas money, which can be redirected to other programming, the hub prevents food waste and maximizes the impact of donations. “This produce was already out-of-date for [the stores],” says Price. “So we were throwing away about 50 percent of what we got because it had already spoiled by the time we got it back from Asheville.”

The pod has been up and running on a limited test basis since the beginning of August. It will be officially launched in its full capacity, turning over a projected 24,000 pounds of fresh produce per month, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication hosted by North Carolina first lady Kristin Cooper on Saturday, Sept. 23.

Once online, the pod will not only serve the 20 partner agencies in Haywood County and several in Jackson County that work with MANNA, but potentially others as well. Price notes that the Haywood Gleaners, a group that harvests discarded but edible produce from local farms, is contributing its surplus to the pod for distribution. And even nonfood-focused organizations, including the Head Start program, have contacted him about collaborating.

“It’s definitely an example of what a community can do when everyone works together,” Price says. “You see a lot of this agency competing against that agency, but this pod has really brought everybody together as a community partnership.”

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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