It's impossible to discuss the health of a community without also discussing the food we eat. And when it comes to making healthy food more widely available for the underserved and at-risk members of our community, MANNA FoodBank plays a significant role. The local nonprofit exemplifies caring and compassion with programs like MANNA Packs for Kids and its community outreach cooking lessons that aim to diversify the produce offered at local food pantries.
MANNA Packs for Kids began in 2005 as a six-month pilot program to offer supplementary nutrition to at-risk schoolchildren. Within a year’s time, the program expanded in scope to help support kids year-round. At its outset, MANNA was supplying about 40-50 packs of simple meals and snacks per week. That number has now grown to about 4,500 packs.
“Schools, and particularly school counselors, identified that there were certain children coming to school after the weekend that were hungry and who struggled with hunger throughout the week,” explained MANNA’s volunteer manager, Maxwell Gruber. “There were already government-funded free and reduced-price lunch programs in place, but the question was: What happens to these kids when they’re home over the weekend, when they’re not receiving that nutrition from the school? The MANNA Packs program is designed specifically to carry these children from Friday, when they leave school, to when they return to school.” The packs include enough food to help feed the child's family, adds Gruber.
The Packs for Kids program began locally in Buncombe County schools, but it has since expanded to include a total of 16 counties in WNC. MANNA uses its large warehouse space to store food, and volunteers help to sort the food and package it.
Becky Upham, MANNA's director of communications and marketing, says that community members and schools have been eager to participate. “In Avery County, the custodial staff come out and meet our drivers and actually deliver the food to the schools. They made it happen,” says Upham. “In Haywood County, the Rotary Club is really active in [supporting the program]. Different communities take ownership because people just have a really hard time with the idea of kids being hungry.”
While feeding the hungry is MANNA's main drive, the nonprofit also recognizes the need to educate people about the food they receive, so that none of it goes to waste. “We have a kitchen called Laurel’s Kitchen,” says Upham, “and we have a guy [Chef Mark Christopher] who comes in and does food-cooking demonstrations.” The demonstrations are held once a month and are open to the community, but Upham says that food pantries are their target audience.
Educating MANNA’s community-partner food pantries is one of the main reasons MANNA launched the initiative, says Gruber. The hope is that all the food that is donated can be distributed and used. “Sometimes people will get things, like ‘Hey, I’ve got all this eggplant,’ or something that people aren’t that familiar with and that might be kind of labor-intensive,” says Upham.
Gruber adds that the people working at the food pantries are doing the shopping. If a food pantry isn't purchasing diverse foods, access to healthy produce for individuals in that community will be limited. “If you’re in the supermarket and you don’t know what certain produce items are, you’re probably not going to buy that or pick that up, and that’s the same for our agencies,” he says. “If they see eggplant and don’t know what it is or what to do with it, they’re going to pass that up just like anybody else would. So educating the agencies who, in turn, educate their constituents is the idea of these cooking demonstrations.”
Since 1982, MANNA FoodBank has been serving food and compassion to the underserved people of Western North Carolina. The organization started off in the basement of Eliada Homes and distributed about 182,000 pounds of food in their first year. This past year, MANNA distributed 12.8 million pounds of food, and 22 percent of that food was fresh produce. “That’s a big initiative that we have,” says Upham. “Food banks all over the country are trying to be more aware. People would take anything to not be hungry, but we really try when we can to utilize grocery stores and local farmers; we had some really generous local farmers this year who have helped us have healthier food to give people.”
MANNA FoodBank is actively accepting volunteers and donations. Visit mannafoodbank.org or call 299-3663 to learn more.
— Freelance writer Haley Steinhardt has called Asheville home since 2003. When she’s not writing, she runs a local wellness practice, Blue Mountain Reiki, and spends time with her sweet family.