In spite of Western North Carolina’s growing reputation as a dining destination, food insecurity is still a pervasive problem for the region. With more than 15 percent of WNC’s population identified as food-insecure by the 2014 Map the Meal Gap study (and that number is not declining, even with improvements in the economy), eradicating hunger seems to be a goal as worthy, yet elusive, as achieving world peace. But, to MANNA FoodBank and its 16-county network of nearly 250 food pantries and distribution programs, creating communities where everyone has enough nutritious food to eat is no pipe dream.
MANNA began major changes to its facilities in late 2015 that will soon have a dramatic impact on its ability to get nutritious fresh and frozen food — much of which would otherwise end up in the landfill — into the hands of people who desperately need it.
According to MANNA’s executive director, Cindy Threlkeld, the organization has now raised $2.9 million of the $3 million goal set for its Space to Erase Hunger capital campaign, launched in early 2014. The purpose of the campaign is to fund extensive renovations and upgrades at MANNA’s two buildings on Swannanoa River Road, including a build-out in one of the warehouses that will result in a 400 percent expansion of freezer space and a 171 percent increase in cooler space — effectively an entire warehouse dedicated to fresh and frozen foods.
The idea behind Space to Erase Hunger originated about three years ago. “The first canary in the mine shaft was realizing our freezer and cooler space was just way too small,” says Threlkeld. “We started having to turn away donations of great food simply because we didn’t have the space to keep it cold — truckloads of yogurt, truckloads of frozen chickens, I mean, really the kind of food we want to be bringing in the door.”
Part of MANNA’s recently adopted five-year strategic plan calls for an increased focus on providing more nutrient-dense fresh produce, dairy products and meats, in addition to canned goods and other shelf-stable products. Currently, a little less than a quarter of the food MANNA distributes to the community is fresh produce, but the aim is to bring that number to more than a third.
Around the time the issue of cold-storage space arose, Threlkeld continues, MANNA began to see that its warehouses weren’t organized efficiently. The two buildings were purchased at different times, and neither one was originally set up to serve as a food bank.
One of the buildings, for instance, didn’t have loading docks on one side. “So if you wanted to move product back and forth, which we have to do all the time, we had to put it on a truck, take it out on Swannanoa River Road and bring it around to the other side — even just for small amounts of food — because there wasn’t even a way for us to get a forklift from one building to the other,” says Threlkeld.
Pro bono logistical evaluations and consultations supplied by experts from Wal-Mart, Ingles and the Beacon Group helped MANNA get a grasp on what needed to happen. Phase 1 of the project, which was executed in late 2014, added the needed truck docks, moved the main warehouse area and enlarged the facility’s volunteer space and meeting rooms.
Phase 2 is now nearing completion, with a ribbon-cutting for the updated facility scheduled for early May. In addition to adding 2,500 square feet of freezer space and 11,000 square feet of refrigerator space, safety and efficiency should be dramatically improved, as plans also called for shifting the organization’s current single floor of office and program space into two stories of rooms efficiently stacked in one corner of the main building.
This upgrade will allow for the creation of a larger produce floor for sorting huge donations of vegetables and fruit from such stores as Food Lion, Publix and Wal-Mart, as well as from area farmers and gardeners. It will also provide for a clean volunteer room for repackaging bulk grains, pastas, crackers and dried fruit into individual and family-sized bags for distribution.
The bigger picture
But will improved efficiency and more cold-storage space at MANNA ultimately be a boon to its widely scattered partner agencies, many of which are small, all-volunteer operations?
MANNA’s chief operating officer, Jill Hanson, says yes. “Our partner agencies are looking forward to the expanded capacity,” she says. “We did some surveys about it, and even a survey by Feeding America indicated that people want more healthy items in their diets. We’re making a shift to provide healthier options for our agencies, and this will definitely help us do that.”
Amy Grimes Sims, executive director of the Community Table, a MANNA partner in Dillsboro, agrees. “We are greatly anticipating the capacity-boosting happening at MANNA as we continue to see new clients each week in both our food pantry and soup kitchen programs,” Sims says. “Between both our programs, literally over 1,000 pounds of food goes out our doors each day, and we can do more if we have it to give.”
Another beneficiary will be Bounty & Soul, a volunteer-run, health- and wellness-focused agency in Black Mountain operating a mobile program that delivers free, fresh produce and gives cooking demonstrations in outlying communities. “We get quite a bit of our produce from MANNA on a weekly basis,” says Executive Director Ali Casparian. “We typically pick up and distribute over 3,000 pounds of produce when available every week. … Their expansion is critical to our growth as well.”
Casparian adds that although Bounty & Soul does source from local farmers and community gardens during the growing season, its programs also rely heavily on MANNA, especially during the winter. “We hope to see an improvement in the selection, variety and volume as a result of their changes. They are great partners.”
But Threlkeld and Casparian both acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot more to eradicate food insecurity than just handing out free food.
“We look at hunger as all-encompassing; it’s something that can be addressed in different ways,” says Casparian, who offers regular classes on nutrition and gardening through Bounty & Soul. “Certainly, giving out food is important, but we’re looking at a more sustainable model, teaching people and empowering people to make better choices and get control of their health.”
MANNA also aims for a holistic paradigm by helping clients navigate the process of signing up for FNS benefits (the U.S. government’s food stamps program) and connecting them to other agencies that can address problems not related to food. This idea of forming partnerships with different organizations to meet clients’ needs is known in the spheres of social services and philanthropy as “collective impact.”
“So many people are faced with these impossible decisions. ‘Do I pay the electric bill, or do I buy food?’ There’s a whole continuum of what it’s going to take to end hunger. Our vision is to have a hunger-free Western North Carolina, and that’s a pretty bold statement,” says Threlkeld.
“We’re not going to end hunger by just continuing to move food in and out [of our warehouses]. … We really need to be looking at how we can pull together with other organizations in our community that are also working with people who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to make those trade-off decisions.”
The strategic goals of MANNA’s new five-year plan, Threlkeld explains, call for collaboration to meet the urgent needs of marginalized citizens so they can feel confident moving forward to build self-sufficient and successful lives. “We will be working together with other organizations like Mission Health, Pisgah Legal, Homeward Bound and On Track. We’re coming around the table together to look at how we can help people put together a whole package that’s going to help them take that next step to stabilize their family,” she says. “Then we’re going to end hunger in Western North Carolina.”