The unexpected, life-changing phone call came in November.
Hannah Randall, MANNA FoodBank’s CEO, picked up. On the other end of the line was an employee working for philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, informing Randall that a $9 million, no-strings-attached donation to support the Asheville-based nonprofit’s work was on the way.
“I hung up the phone and cried,” Randall says.
In December, when she was finally able to share news of the gift from the billionaire ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with MANNA’s staff, the team just about fell to the floor in shock, Randall says with a laugh. “We’ve never received a gift of this magnitude,” she continues. “We all were just overwhelmed with joy.”
The transformative donation comes not a moment too soon. The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched the region’s biggest food bank thin, pushing its facility’s limits during a sudden rise in food insecurity.
“There were times, especially early on in the pandemic, where I didn’t know how we were going to be able to afford to feed people, and I definitely didn’t know how we would be able to sustain ourselves in the long term,” Randall says. “This gift is making the idea of a MANNA that will be here to serve our mountain people a real possibility.”
A much-needed infusion
Driving up to MANNA’s Swannanoa River Road headquarters on any given morning is akin to navigating rush hour in a major city. Vehicles dart in and out of the crowded parking lot, dodging forklifts that tote pallets of food between warehouse buildings. Traffic is often blocked on both sides of the road as 53-foot tractor-trailers navigate a space that wasn’t designed for regular deliveries of the scope the food bank needs.
And that’s just on the outside of one building, Randall says. MANNA is already leasing an additional warehouse in Swannanoa for dry good storage, meaning some food must travel between three different buildings before it goes out for delivery. The nonprofit’s ability to operate safely and efficiently is at “critical mass,” she says, and its Swannanoa River Road space is completely landlocked with no room to expand.
A new facility was already at the top of MANNA’s pre-pandemic priorities, but high food demand has only increased its importance. Between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, MANNA and its partner agencies served an average of 41,700 households monthly, a 102% increase over pre-pandemic numbers. Over that same period, the food bank provided 23.8 million meals to WNC families.
Supply chain disruptions in the pandemic’s early months meant MANNA had to spend significantly more money than usual on food purchases, says Mary Nesbitt, MANNA’s chief development officer. Staff members knew their best shot to raise the funds for a new facility was a new capital campaign, but they felt they couldn’t turn to community members already digging deep to offset the growing price of food.
Then came the fateful phone call. MANNA’s board of directors approved the use of Scott’s $9 million gift to purchase a 24-acre parcel in Swannanoa for a new, sustainable facility. The nonprofit is currently completing a 120-day due diligence period before the deal is finalized.
“It’s going to affect people’s lives and the region as a whole for years to come,” Randall says.
Room to grow
The new headquarters is still a few years out from completion, but the MANNA team is starting to brainstorm ways to make the space work for the organization’s many needs. Staff members are working with partner organizations and volunteers to solicit ideas; a series of listening sessions will be held once the project is a bit farther along, Nesbitt says.
The new space will maximize efficiency, Randall says. All donations will be housed under one roof to prevent unnecessary handling. The team is also looking into environmentally friendly building materials, backup generators to keep refrigerated food cool during power outages and a covered loading dock to keep deliveries dry on rainy days.
Other partner organizations have requested a communal space where they can host trainings and share best practices, Randall adds. And she thinks there may be room to start a community garden.
Mike Mulry, a longtime MANNA volunteer, is excited to see the new facility come together. Right now, the Volunteer Center on Swannanoa River Road where he spends several hours each week gets crowded, making it difficult to sort items and pack boxes. He’s ready for more room to spread out, and as the driver of a MANNA delivery truck, he’s ready to finally get a bigger parking lot.
Because it’s so early in the process, cost estimates and construction plans are far from finalized, Nesbitt says. The team will soon begin identifying strategic partnerships with area organizations and foundations to help fill the missing financial pieces.
Hunger here to stay
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many families over the edge, Nesbitt says, but the region’s widening gap between cost of living and incomes made conditions ripe for a socioeconomic storm — especially for employees trying to make ends meet through low-paying seasonal jobs in the tourism industry. One-in-4 children and 1-in-6 adults in the region were food insecure before the pandemic, but if the lines queueing up to receive packages from MANNA are any indication, those numbers have only grown higher.
Mulry says he sees those challenges each week as he delivers food boxes to rural communities. Food drives that used to attract 40 to 50 families have doubled in demand, he says, and many people are seeking out assistance for the first time.
“A lot of the people I talk to don’t know what the process [to receive assistance] is, or tell me they never thought they’d have to ask for help in their lives,” Mulry says. “I hate to see the numbers increase but I’m glad that we’re able to get out there and do something to help.”
With more than 50% of North Carolina’s adult population at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, many residents are hopeful that the worst of the pandemic is over. But higher hunger numbers aren’t going to suddenly disappear, Randall says. March 2021 was among MANNA’s busiest months yet, with 2.2 million pounds of food distributed across the community, a 12% rise over March 2020.
“This has been an unbelievably challenging year, but I think it inspires us even more to make sure we’re here for our neighbors when they lose a job, when someone in the family gets cancer, when a divorce happens, or if they’re a senior who can’t get out of their home,” Randall says. “And we’re going to be there, for years to come.”