Every year, MANNA FoodBank hosts a feast to fight famine with its annual Blue Jean Ball. Since 1983, the nonprofit has worked to involve, educate and unite people in the work of ending hunger in Western North Carolina, and for nearly 20 years, this signature event has raised money to support those efforts. This year’s 19th Blue Jean Ball on June 2 raised at least $144,000, which will provide over 500,000 meals to food-insecure WNC residents.
Incredibly, the gala, which brings some 1,000 guests together for a night of food, drinks, live music and dancing, takes place right at MANNA’s facility on Swannanoa River Road. Making this happen requires that over the course of just three days, the MANNA team has to transform the working food bank into a glamorous festival space — while simultaneously continuing to receive donations and deliver food to hundreds of recipients in its 16-county service area.
Exacerbating the challenge this year, the Swannanoa River, which lies directly behind MANNA’s offices and warehouses, overflowed its banks due to heavy rains just days before the event. The MANNA parking lot and Swannanoa River Road were flooded, and the food bank was forced to close on May 29, delaying event preparations and severely complicating regular operations.
“We’re kind of like the postal service: In the rain, the storm, the sleet, the snow — no matter what, we still have to get our food out,” says Alisa Hixson, MANNA’s director of corporate engagement and signature events.
This year marks Hixson’s eighth Blue Jean Ball, and she says that normally the biggest challenge the event presents is working out logistics for conducting business as usual despite the limited facility access when the tents and event supplies arrive. “We distribute the equivalent of 39,500 meals each day; our 200-plus partners count on us. We can’t just close down to set this all up,” she says.
The soggy conditions for this year’s gala added unanticipated challenges, but the situation could have been worse. “Amazingly, while we did get about 3 inches of water in our parking lot, it did not make it into any other areas of our facility,” says operations director Lisa D. Reynolds. MANNA was able to reroute deliveries and reschedule on-site operations to get back on schedule by the Monday after the ball, largely thanks to thorough prep work that began months before the event.
“We look at what things are going to need to be accomplished and decide if we need to reroute our deliveries or if we can continue service,” says Reynolds. The team has always been able to work out routing for deliveries, and local agencies that depend on MANNA to stock their food pantries are invited to come in and shop for supplies earlier in the week.
Bringing the Blue Jean Ball to life requires all hands on deck from the MANNA staff and event sponsors starting the Thursday before the gala. For this year’s Hawaiian-themed ball, dubbed Aloha from the Swan Na Noa, more than 40 volunteers worked with staff throughout the week to coordinate setup. Staff members from the Biltmore Company, Mosaix Group Asheville and other sponsoring businesses helped erect tents, set up tables and decorate the entire outdoor space. MANNA’s interior warehouse was also decorated, and guests were able to walk through and view the facility’s massive corridors stocked with food.
“It’s amazing, really. I just am so impressed with what the [full-time staffers] do and still carry on with what they have to do on a daily basis,” says Joan Nelson, a four-year MANNA volunteer who donated her time as a greeter at the June 2 fundraiser.
Large tents were erected on and around the recently flooded parking lot, where chefs from 17 local restaurants and food businesses served custom-made delicacies that aligned with the event’s Hawaiian theme. All culinary sponsors donated their food and service. On the beverage side, Empire Distributors was on hand with a portable draft-beer cart pouring local brews.
Local composer and music professor Jason DeCristofaro kept the atmosphere lively throughout the evening. DeCristofaro, who is the musical director for all of MANNA’s events, not only performed but also assembled the eight-piece band and organized the rehearsals leading up to the ball. “It is my belief that food security is a basic human right, which is why I donate all my time to MANNA FoodBank,” he says. “I would love to see an end to food insecurity in Western North Carolina, and I believe MANNA has the ability to meet this goal with its dedicated staff and volunteers.”
Just as quickly as the venue was created, the space returned to its previous utilitarian state. Volunteers began breaking things down at 11 p.m. Saturday and worked until nearly 2 a.m. before returning the following day. On Monday morning, MANNA FoodBank was back to business as usual, continuing the fight to end hunger in Western North Carolina.