By Jane Duckwall
When people mistake MANNA FoodBank for a food pantry, CEO Hannah Randall explains the difference like this: “We’re the artery for how food gets into western North Carolina, and our partners are the capillaries.”
MANNA collects, purchases and distributes food to 229 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, group homes and other organizations in 16 counties, feeding more than 107,000 people annually. Asheville-based MANNA also sponsors backpack programs to provide food on weekends and during the summer for students who depend on free and reduced meals at school. The nonprofit is a “huge, logistical distribution operation,” Randall says.
Almost three-fourths of the food is donated by businesses, farmers, other nonprofits and individuals. The rest is purchased with funds from state and federal programs, private gifts and events. In 2015, MANNA’s largest food donors included Ingles Markets, Wal-Mart Stores and Henderson County-based Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, which grows tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables.
If MANNA and its partners are the blood vessels in this food chain, donors and volunteers are its beating heart. More than 7,400 volunteers logged 65,736 hours in 2015, while thousands more donate time to MANNA’s partners. “It is a giant group of people making this happen in western North Carolina,” Randall says, “and it’s pretty inspiring.”
One partner is The Community Table in Sylva, where about 30 volunteers regularly help two employees run a food pantry and serve nutritious meals four days a week to as many as 200 people. Many volunteers are students, faculty or staff at nearby Western Carolina University. Others “are people who are, fortunately, really bad at being retired,” says Amy Grimes Sims, executive director.
MANNA opened in 1983, distributing 40,000 pounds of food that first year. In 2015, it distributed 15.7 million pounds, including 5.3 million pounds of fresh produce. That represents 36,000 meals a day for low-income residents who live within the 6,434 square miles of MANNA’s mountainous territory. Its most recent public tax report shows food donations and other contributions jumped from $11 million in 2009 to $23 million in 2013.
But more residents need help, prompting recent renovations that will allow MANNA to increase food capacity to 20 million pounds a year. It boosted freezer space by 400% and cooler capacity by 171% to handle more fresh produce.
Limited space was “where our biggest bottleneck was,” says Randall. “Food comes in waves and, really, those waves are more like spikes. So we have to be able to handle those spikes … because we never want to turn food away.”
One way MANNA has been able to handle food spikes is through its Pop-Up Market program, which distributes surplus produce in low-income neighborhoods. In another program, volunteers drive smaller trucks to deliver perishable items to food-pantry partners on distribution days.
Adair Andrew, a retired math teacher, made his first MANNA Express delivery last November, driving a truck filled with bakery items, crates of corn still in the husk, sweet potatoes and other produce for Thanksgiving meals. Rainy weather and slow mountain traffic caused the truck to arrive 30 minutes late to a pantry distributing turkeys and trimmings.
“It was drizzling,” he recalls. “There were like 150-200 people standing in line. … And when the truck pulled up, they started cheering. It was very emotional.”
Jeff Jones of Cherokee is both a volunteer and a client at The Community Table. “I’m disabled, and it gives me something to do during the day,” he says. He wraps silverware for meals, helps stock the pantry shelves and sets out food for the pantry distributions.
“This is my family,” Jones says. “I did have family ‘till my brother passed away,” but now “The Community Table is the only family I have.”
Randall, who worked at Duke Energy Corp. before becoming MANNA’s CEO in May, felt called to the position.
“You know how there are things in life that you just have to do, and you don’t know why? This was one of those things,” she says. “The mission and the reach of what MANNA does across 16 counties in North Carolina really impacts people’s everyday lives in an incredibly tangible way. … If you have an empty stomach, and you’re hungry or you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from, how can you possibly function in a healthy way in the rest of your life?”