BOXES OF HOPE
Manna Food Center is in the box-giving business.
No, not that type of box.
Certainly not that type of box!
THIS type of box.
More than 170 of them each day, in fact. Each is filled with a variety of foods to help Montgomery County families in need.
This isn’t just a bring-cans-in, pass-cans-out distribution center. The organization exists to “mobilize the community to keep people well-fed,” said Jackie DeCarlo, Manna’s executive director.
Manna works directly with grocery stores, bakeries and other suppliers to take the food they can’t sell and put it to good use. Other donations come from all over the county: Girl Scout troops, synagogues and individuals dropping off a few items they picked up on their last grocery run. It’s truly a combined effort.
They also take the idea of being “well-fed” very seriously. Manna employs nutritionists and educators to work directly with the people they’re serving. While waiting in line, clients can watch a flat screen TV showing healthy recipes and tips on eating better. The boxes themselves are prepared with a balanced, holistic diet in mind. Manna’s partnerships with local farms and retailers gives them the chance to provide fresh produce, as well as the standard non-perishable fare.
A DAY AT MANNA FOOD CENTER
Manna’s truck drivers arrive at 6:30 a.m. They visit between eight and ten stores a day, arriving back at the distribution center around lunch time. Once back, the drivers help offload the donations into the warehouse. Some then head back out to one of Manna’s network of satellite distribution centers.
“There’s times when they’re not done until 8:30 at night,” said Trostle. “It’s not unusual for me to see a 13-hour day put in by these guys.”
Volunteers begin rolling in around 9 a.m. They start by helping organize the newly arrived food, packing boxes, and getting things prepared for distribution. When the doors open at noon, volunteers are up front at the distribution table, ready with carts to ferry boxes and bags of food to clients’ vehicles.
In the evenings, when most have gone home for the day, a different group of volunteers arrives. “Elves,” Kevin calls them. In the morning, staff and volunteers arrive to find the pallets, once stacked with various food items, now stacked high with brown boxes that are sorted, sealed and ready to go.
Volunteers serve Manna in other capacities as well. The referrals office serves as a sort of one-stop shop for client sign-up, customer service, and daily logistical and administrative work. At any given moment, there is a veritable platoon of people manning the desks and service windows -- two employees, and three or four volunteers. Other volunteers help out off-site. Director of development Mark Foraker recounted a recent food drive that took place at 27 branches of a major grocery chain, over the course of a two-day weekend: “Mathematically, even if only one of [the staff] took each store, it would be impossible to do.” Once again, the volunteers came through.
Managing an operation of Manna’s scale is an ongoing task. Staff members, full-time and part-time, work alongside volunteers and partner organizations to provide more than 2.1 million pounds of food each year. These social servants work from sun-up to sundown, weekdays and weekends, so that the people and businesses of Montgomery County can come together to support one another in times of need. Manna provides a wonderful example of what can happen when neighbors reach out to neighbors.
STORIES FROM MANNA
Many people see organizations like Manna Food Center as serving the poor, homeless and unemployed. The fact is, Manna helps out a wide range of people, each with different reasons for coming through the door. The phrase “working poor” can describe the average Manna client -- underemployed, seasonally employed, or employed in an unstable field – someone who doesn’t always need a helping hand, who but finds themselves stretching to make ends meet every now and then.
The following were adapted from “The Stories of Manna: Narratives from the Ground,” a collection of profiles compiled by University of Maryland graduate student Sarah Lazarus. Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Joann is a single mother. She first found Manna when she lost her job as a caretaker. When Joann was working, she qualified for daycare assistance from Social Services. Once she became unemployed, however, that assistance either ended or, in other cases, became logistically impossible to use. While she picks up some money by looking after her friends’ children or doing their hair, it’s not enough to make ends meet. Manna’s assistance allows Joann to feed herself and her daughter while she continues to search for a paid position that will either allow her the schedule to take care of her family or, ideally, pay enough for her to afford a nanny.
Laila has spent the last 13 years working as a certified nurse’s assistant in hospitals and private homes. Since the income from these jobs can be unsteady, she’s been working on her bachelor’s degree in nursing, with hopes for becoming a registered nurse. She’s only one semester from graduating, but she’s had to put her dream on hold to tend to her family. Laila’s son is also in college, and two tuitions was too much for the family of seven to handle. She, her husband and her son all work – a full-time minimum wage position and two part-time low-wage jobs among the three of them, but her family still relies on the folks at Manna to help them get by each month.
Varshea was born into a military family. She graduated from Largo High School, holds a certificate from Prince George’s Community College, and graduated from a career college in California, where she studied business. She had to give up her job at a bank, however, to return to Maryland to take care of her ailing mother, a task that makes it very difficult to find a full-time job. Varshea works part-time while tending to her family and paying back her student loans. Manna only sees her a few times a year, when she feels that she is truly in need of the help. Other times, when funds are less tight, she makes a point of giving back to the organization. “Even if it’s only three dollars, I donate when I can.”
These are just a few of the stories of Manna’s life-changing work. These are our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers. Normal, hard-working, caring people who just need that helping hand to get by. Every week, box by box, the staff, volunteers and supporters of Manna help write chapters in thousands of stories just like these.