MANNA Food Bank: WNC’s ‘Food on Wheels’

Volunteers assemble food packs for students at MANNA Food Bank.

MANNA Food Bank was alive with activity on a recent Wednesday morning when volunteers were packing food for school children in a large room while trucks pulled up to the loading dock with products from a local grocery store.

Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications for the food bank, was getting ready to head out to the Mountain State Fair in Fletcher to help with Ingles Day where the price of admission was five cans of food, which were donated to the food bank.

In addition to some state and federal assistance with food purchasing, the food bank relies on donations from grocery stores, businesses, and individual donors to operate the non-profit organization that provides food to needy people in Western North Carolina.

Last year the food bank distributed 16.4 million pounds of food to people in the 16-county western region of the state the agency serves, Irani said.

“Basically, our operation is food on wheels,” she remarked.

A fleet of trucks transports food supplies to partnering agencies including shelters for homeless people and victims of domestic violence and faith-based organizations that assist the needy with food pantries.

“Anyone who needs food, we want to give it to them,” Irani said.

Walking through the rooms of the warehouse piled high with boxes of canned goods and fresh produce, Irani talked about the enormous need in Western North Carolina, which has a large rural population of people living in poverty. North Carolina is the eighth hungriest state in the country, and its western region is the most poor and rural, Irani stated.

Children are particularly vulnerable to hunger, with 25 percent in Western North Carolina lacking regular access to food, she noted. Although many children are eligible for free and reduced-priced school meals, they often face a lack of food on weekends and during school breaks. To address this deficiency, the MANNA Packs for Kids program distributes food packs to youngsters at more than 170 sites in the western region of the state. 

Each week MANNA provides food packs to more than 4,800 children whom teachers, counselors and school administrators identified as in need of assistance.

“We source things that kids can make themselves,” Irani said, standing next to a large shipment of canned ravioli.

If possible, the food packs include a meal for a family of four, she added.

The volunteers working steadily to fill packs with food on a recent morning are an example of the invaluable support the food back receives from the community.

“We have a huge corps of volunteers,” Irani said.

Last year 6,200 volunteers provided 65,000 hours of assistance—the equivalent of 35 full-time employees, she said. Volunteers also drive the MANNA Express non-commercial refrigerated food trucks that deliver perishable foods to pantries on the day food is distributed.

Another service volunteers provide is assisting people who may be eligible for food stamps by talking with them on a helpline in an office of the food bank.

The time that volunteers give to the food bank helps stretch the dollars received from donors and other sources, Irani pointed out.

The biggest source of funding for the food bank comes from contributions of individual donors, she added. Last year individual donations comprised 43 percent of private support the food bank receives, according to the annual report of MANNA Food Bank. Businesses contributed another 15 percent of private donations and foundations, community organizations and United Way contributed a combined total of 24 percent.

The organization also receives a portion of its funding from state and federal sources, as well as from grants for its expenses that totaled $25.5 million last year.

For more information, visit the website at www.MANNAFoodbank.org or call 828-299-FOOD.

By Sandra Barnes