A Decade of Dedication: MANNA Packs for Kids Reaches 1,000,000 Bags

MANNA FoodBank is celebrating a major milestone: This month, MANNA staff and volunteers are packing and delivering the one-millionth MANNA Pack for Kids. In the ten years that it has taken to reach this important moment, thousands of Western North Carolina people have had a hand in helping feed children in need. We would like to recognize and celebrate this achievement, and at the same time, note that this is a bittersweet celebration. The following article highlights the roots of why the program began, and how it has grown along with the growing need for food in our most vulnerable population: WNC children.

It’s a Friday afternoon, and the air is buzzing with energy. Kids are wriggling in their classroom chairs, anxious to greet the weekend with the kind of fervor reserved for slumber parties, neighborhood pickup games, or the beginning of summer break. Boys and girls, ready to break free from the structure of learning and dive into the freedom of childhood, wait impatiently for dismissal to begin so they can race home and play with their favorite toys, best friends, and enjoy the sweet innocence that is childhood.

That might be the case for most of these kids. Actually, that might be the case for 3 out of 4 of these kids. But looking around the classroom, it’s hard to tell which child might be hungry. Hunger, at first glance, is invisible. But make no mistake: It has a face – a child’s face.

The other 25% face more than just a care-free childhood when they leave school for the weekend. 1 in 4 Western North Carolina children are dealing with a much more adult situation: They are living in a home that does not have enough food to last the family for the next two days.

MANNA Packs for Kids: How It Works

“It’s magic, really, how it all comes together.” That’s MANNA’s Director of Operations, Lisa Cantrell, describing the intricate system that keeps thousands of MANNA Packs moving across WNC every week.

Every Friday, a bag of nutrient-dense food is discreetly slipped into thousands of WNC schoolkids backpacks. The food in the pack changes from week to week, but the key elements remain the same: High-nutrient, shelf stable food, the makings for a family meal, breakfast and snack items, and fresh fruit when available.

But what happens first is the “magic” to which Cantrell is referring: Hundreds of people come together every week to make this magic work – planning each week’s bag items, finding and getting the food to MANNA, sorting and organizing the food, packing the week’s bags, loading them into trucks and vans, delivering them to schools, and finally, packing them lovingly into a child’s backpack to be sent home with them over the weekend. This intricate dance happens every week without fail (minus the summer months when MANNA changes over to the Summer Packs program), and sometimes must be sped up to a fever pitch if there is the anticipation of poor weather conditions resulting in school closings.

MANNA Packs for Kids: How It Started

It all began with a passion for feeding kids. Beth Stahl, MANNA’s Youth Programs Manager, was running a child feeding program called Kid’s Café, but she knew she wanted to do more. A WNC native, Stahl knew the need for food was huge, especially for kids eating free and reduced school breakfast and lunch. In 2005, she began a backpack pilot program to send bags of food home with kids on Friday afternoons at Oakley Elementary. It was an instant hit.

In 2006, Stahl ran into her former guidance counselor from Enka High School at the grocery store; the conversation soon turned towards Beth’s backpack pilot program, the counselor’s students that they suspected weren’t getting food at home, increased need for free and reduced lunches at the school, and worry for the kids when they are home over the weekend and during school holidays. This heartfelt conversation launched the expansion into Haywood County for MANNA Packs for Kids.

Stahl’s humanitarian passion has always been finely attuned to the most vulnerable, and her hard work, sweat, and no doubt a number of tears were now focused like a laser on feeding WNC’s kids.

MANNA Packs for Kids: The Turning Point

For the two years, the MANNA Packs program inched along, scraping together as many bags as possible on practically no budget. The bags were often a mismatched gathering of what could be pulled from MANNA’s warehouse, parts of larger donations that might have come in that week, and whatever else could be manifested by staff, volunteers, and food donors. The first year of the program provided a total of 50 bags a week to area kids. The next year, the program started to grow, as Stahl reached out to more schools, volunteers started to come forward to support the program, and WNC businesses began offering more reliable food donations. By 2008, the program had grown to providing a total of 5,206 bags to around 295 public school students – a big jump compared to the numbers from the first year.

But that all changed one fateful day: A grant from American Idol – yes, that American Idol, the televised singing competition – was the first real infusion of funds into the program. Almost overnight, MANNA Packs went from struggling to fill 5,000 packs in an entire year to churning out an average of over 1,300 bags a week by the school year’s end. With the infusion of that pivotal financial support, the program snowballed, picking up volunteers, donors, participating schools, and widespread community support.

“We started out with MANNA Packs six years ago because we saw the need,” remembers Tammy Woodie, Director of Child Nutrition for Avery County Schools. “We now have 268 students who participate in the MANNA backpack program in our county; this is approximately 13% of our student population,” she reports, and notes that she is sure the need is more because student food insecurity is certainly underreported to the schools.

Now, thanks to the heart and compassion of countless individual donors, established community groups like area Rotary Clubs, the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, the United Way of Henderson County, a variety of charitable foundations like Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation, the Morgan Stanley Foundation, and area businesses like Biltmore, Food Lion, Mast General Store, the MANNA Packs for Kids program serves over 4,800 WNC students every week. This regular funding is the only thing that keeps MANNA Packs moving across the 16-county region.

MANNA Packs for Kids: How the Bag Has Evolved

“When we first started the program, we had no funding, so we put whatever we could get in the bags,” recalls Stahl. “The first bags had fresh produce, because we could get that from donated stock for free!” Parents that have ever found themselves uttering the words, “no dessert until you eat your vegetables,” can imagine how well those first MANNA Packs, laden with fresh veggies, went over.

“Some of these kids had never even seen a zucchini,” says Stahl, of what she thinks might have become flying objects on a school bus. Thus began the ongoing process of determining how to fill the bags. What’s the healthiest food to include that children will eat? Should the bags be kid-friendly snacks and easy-to-open containers, or should they be filled with ingredients that require preparation? Does the food need to be shelf stable? What is the ideal amount of food that will last through the weekend, but isn’t too heavy for small children to carry? These questions and others drove the search for identifying what would be best in the bags, and in 2013, that search found a grounding point with Leah McGrath, Ingles Markets’ dietician.

“Many people don’t realize that these simple MANNA Packs may be providing much needed food, not just for the child, but also in many cases for their siblings or parents,” says McGrath of her work with MANNA to help create a bag that could truly fill the need. Once Stahl and McGrath set about creating the structure for the bag, things started falling into place. With a focus on nutritional, calorie-dense foods, they came up with what they thought would work best: high-nutrient, shelf-stable items like canned beans, the makings for a family meal, like spaghetti or lasagna, breakfast items like muffin mix, snack items aimed at being nutritious and filling, like fruit cups, and fresh fruit when it is available.

“When we donate food to food banks, a food pantry, or shelter,” says McGrath, “it’s so important to think about nutrient density, shelf stability, and how the item will give the child a nutritious snack or help the family make a meal.”

Identifying Food Insecurity in Children

One of the more difficult parts of addressing hunger on a larger scale is that it is often invisible, especially with children. A child in a food-insecure home might not, at first glance, look “hungry”. A family is struggling to stretch a food budget has less options for healthy food; cheap, accessible food can often be high in sugars, starches, and other non-nutrient elements. Sometimes, hunger-insecure children can actually be overweight due to these circumstances.

“[Hunger] has impacted many of our students and their families at times when they are beyond need and don’t know where to start,” says Lyn Bush, School Counselor for C.T. Koontz Intermediate School in Buncombe County. “I think of our homeless families, especially in the interim between support, when our food is anxiously awaited.”

Bush works to help identify food insecure kids as part of her support work at Koontz Intermediate, and sometimes the need is obvious. “We respect this program and have been very diligent in updating our list to serve those in need.”

Some of her experiences seem too brutal to be true. “I remember especially a child that withholding food was a form of punishment,” she recalls. “He kept his [MANNA Packs] in his room, and one day asked if there was a way to get a can opener because he was scared he might be heard if he used the electric one in the kitchen.”

But every child is unique. MANNA works with teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators to identify at-risk children based on a variety of signs that are often not physically apparent. Often, behaviors like rushing food lines, quickly eating all of the food served and immediately asking for more or lingering around after a school meal or snack can be indicators that a child might not be getting enough food. Teachers often experience the effects that hunger has on children when they observe a child’s inability to focus on school work, excessive absences, chronic illnesses, or ongoing behavioral issues like irritability or anxiousness.

“Mostly we work with families that work hard to support their children,” says Bush, ”but just can’t make ends meet and food becomes scarce by the end of the week. Those are the ones that come to me to ask for the food if it isn’t in their locker first thing Friday mornings.”

Ten Years Later: The Millionth MANNA Pack

It is those brutal truths, and the ongoing, even growing, need for food, that drives Stahl and all of the volunteers involved in MANNA Packs for Kids to continue to work hard to meet that need. “As I look back, it was such an easy program to design, implement, and become so passionate about,” says Stahl.

The one-millionth MANNA Pack is quite a milestone to note, and the entire Western North Carolina community has banded together to make this moment happen.

“Through this important program, MANNA FoodBank is touching lives, giving hope, and helping prevent hunger with food donations from our community,” says McGrath.

“Hunger is real, and it has a face,” Woodie says of her experience with students in Avery County. “This program is all worth it, if it makes a real difference in the life of one child. I know it is making a difference in many lives in our county.

“I suppose the accomplishment part for me is best described as knowing that we have tried to make a difference in some young lives, even with that small 5-lb. bag of food, and that the children can call it their very own for that week,” Stahl says. “I can feel good about that.”