The Fuel That Feeds: Volunteers and Donors Ignite the Growth and Success of MANNA Packs for Kids

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 need to feed children remains, and continues to grow.

MANNA Packs Volunteers: Meet the Muscle

Concrete floors, fluorescent lighting, and sensible, sturdy shoes: It’s not the most glamorous work, but it is arguably the most important work. Volunteers come every week to pack thousands of bags of food that will be placed in the backpacks of school children all across Western North Carolina. They aren’t paid in money, but what they receive in return is more lasting – they know that their work is making a real impact, and helping the most vulnerable WNC residents. They know their work is feeding children.

“When we first moved to Asheville, we were looking for something to do once we got settled – something that would have some meaning,” says Nils Nelson, who has been volunteering for MANNA for the last three years. “We saw some information about MANNA, and a neighbor told us what MANNA was doing in the way of distribution of food throughout Western North Carolina – and particularly with MANNA Packs – and we joined our neighbor, came over for an interview, and have been here ever since.”

The MANNA Packs for Kids program depends on volunteers of all kinds at every junction. Volunteers pack thousands of bags every week. Volunteers drive the bags to 16 different counties in Western North Carolina. Volunteers deliver the bags to 149 different schools each week. Simply put, without the hundreds of volunteers that dedicate their time every week, this program would not be what it is today.

“We’re a very small cog in a very big machine,” Nelson humbly says of his regular, weekly volunteer work for the MANNA Packs program. “We do packing, and there are so many other people involved in this, that we feel that just doing our little part has made us kind of proud of what we do.”

It’s More Than a Bag: Meeting Specific Community Needs

“I’ve know that there are kids that would not eat over the weekend without [MANNA Packs],” says Carolyn Henze, another regular MANNA Packs volunteer. She packs bags every week at the MANNA Volunteer Center. “That gives me a lot of energy to get involved and be part of the MANNA Packs program.”

It’s not just MANNA volunteers working in the Volunteer Center that are doing this vital work to feed WNC’s children. Volunteers at MANNA some partner agencies – the 250+ food pantries, soup kitchens, church ministries, and other organizations dedicated to providing emergency food – supplement bags before they reach their final destination. The Western North Carolina area has such a wide diversity of regions, and the needs vary from county to county. Some partners add specific items, like produce or snacks, some partners deliver packs to students’ homes, and some develop a weekly menu that they use to add to the bags they receive from MANNA.

“Most of our effort is during school breaks like Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter when we send out multiple [bags] in the same week to help them get through the break,” say Tommy Justus, the pastor at Mars Hill Baptist Church in Madison County. Justus works to provide supplemental food that he knows people in his immediate community need. “Sometimes we add a small ham and other special items for a holiday meal.”

“[Matt’s Ministry] supplement and distribute MANNA Packs, and do home deliveries to specifically identified children,” says Jennifer Trippe, MANNA’s Western Outreach Coordinator and Registered Dietician. “Their home deliveries are conducted by volunteers, many of whom have been going to the same home for two or more years, have developed relationships with these families, and been able to connect them to other needed resources.” It’s this personal touch with people in their own communities that make these volunteers so very special. They have their finger on the pulse of what the Clay County community needs, and this is the kind of partnership that helps support the entire program.

“This is a magical bunch of folks…[that] consists of volunteers from all over [Clay] county,” Trippe says. “I often cry tears of joy when I leave [from meeting with] them.”

Donors: The Fuel that Feeds

Funding is something every non-profit works hard to source, and it’s often hard to show potential donors just what their impact can truly be. When 95% of every dollar donated to MANNA goes directly to food, a donor’s impact is very immediate, and very real.

Donors truly helped launched the MANNA Packs for Kids program. For the first two years of the program, MANNA staffers cobbled together what they could get from various food donations. The first year of the program provided 50 bags a week to kids in need; the next year, that number went up to an average of 295 bags a week. Not a bad showing for a program that was still unfunded. It took a lot of volunteer effort to help procure even that amount of the needed food.

But then the big funding hit: In 2007, MANNA received a grant from American Idol to support the MANNA Packs for Kids program. That year, the number of packs shot up to 1,334 a week: an increase of more than 450%. More kids, in more schools, were now receiving life-supporting food, and the impact that donors could have in the lives of WNC children was starkly apparent.

After that, it seemed to snowball. Foundations, investment groups, individuals, and corporations got in on the action.

“I was amazed at the number of students who needed assistance,” says Nancy Maher, founder of Pisgah Investments Foundation and a longtime supporter of MANNA Packs for Kids. “[I was] impressed by the quality of food that is provided.”

That funding has made all the difference for the MANNA Packs program, and through it, for the children of Western North Carolina. In 2008, the number of participating schools grew to 87, and volunteers were packing and delivering 2,900 bags every week. In 2009, 112 schools were participating, and 3,769 bags were being delivered every week. With added funding every year, more volunteers coming together, and partner agencies jumping on board, the MANNA Packs for Kids program cemented itself as a staple for students needing food.

“It’s taken 10 years to roll like a machine,” says program founder and MANNA’s Youth Programs Manager, Beth Stahl. Now in 2016, MANNA serves 149 schools with over 4,800 bags every week.

“I have had the opportunity to see the MANNA Packs program in action at an Asheville City School,” Maher relates. “It is quite an elaborate process for staff and volunteers to gather, pack, and discreetly distribute food to all these students and their families.” She and her husband Tom continue to support the program, and encourage others to do the same. “Tom and I have been so proud to support the MANNA Packs program,” she says. “Congratulations to MANNA and to all the volunteers who make this happen every week.”

The Need Keeps Growing

The ten years of growth in this special program is a testament to the dedication of these incredible volunteers and visionary donors, but the victory remains bittersweet: MANNA Packs only reaches a fraction of students that are supported by free or reduced school meals, and that heartbreaking reality keeps everyone driven and dedicated to do more.

“It has also been ten years of knowing there are indeed hungry, innocent children so close [to home], and that the need has not diminished, but grown,” says Stahl, commenting on both the success and the need for the program.”

“Yes, we celebrate our accomplishment,” she says of the one-millionth MANNA Pack,” but it’s hard to think about the ‘whys’ of needing this program.”

If you are interested in learning more about the MANNA Packs for Kids program, or want to become a part of it, please call MANNA FoodBank at 828-299-FOOD (3663), or email MANNAFB@mannafoodbank.org.