Health Beat: MANNA Delivers Healthy Foods to Fight Diseases

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The Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance, also known as MANNA, is a nonprofit organization located in Center City responsible for preparing, cooking and delivering wholesome, heart-healthy meals to people suffering from severe and life-threatening illnesses in Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey.

The organization has a staff of fewer than 30 people, making the operation mostly run by volunteers. MANNA’s volunteers help to create roughly 4,000 meals a day – consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner – by preparing, cooking and packaging the meals to be delivered.

“We have four amazing chefs, but they’re not nearly enough to make the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 meals a day that we’re cooking in our kitchen every week,” said Jen Stackhouse, volunteer manager at MANNA.

Volunteers scurried around the kitchen to prepare meals for the day.
Volunteers scurried around the kitchen to prepare meals for the day.

Stackhouse is in charge of staffing the kitchen and making sure there are enough people working to keep operations running smoothly. MANNA cycles through approximately 70 volunteers a day or more. The organization offers a flexible schedule allowing the volunteers to easily find time to work and integrate the volunteer schedule into daily life.

“Part of that MANNA volunteer culture is our flexibility. Volunteers don’t have to let anyone know, they can just show up,” Stackhouse said. “Our individual volunteers can just walk in; all they have to do is sign up beforehand, do a volunteer application online, come to orientation and then we let them get started and set their own schedule.”

The “life cycle” of the meals, as Stackhouse described it, starts with the food being prepped, cooked, then packed in a tray, sealed and labeled according to the patients’ dietary needs, then placed in a freezer. After being frozen, the food is brought back out and gets packed into a big meal bag.

“First thing in the morning, that’s what our volunteers are doing – they’re packing all of those meals into meal bags so they can go out into trucks and go out on the road. That’s one of the tasks we are always doing,” Stackhouse said.

The individual volunteer shifts begin as early as 6 a.m. The early morning shifts help pack up the meals, set up the kitchen and start the prep for the day. Prepping includes seasoning meat, dicing or chopping vegetables, assembling goods for baking and assisting the chefs. Other volunteer tasks include baking, cooking, delivering food, general office work, labeling soup and assisting at MANNA events such as Shut Up and Dance, an annual event consisting of a one-night performance by Philadelphia’s ballet company to raise money for the nonprofit.

The volunteers smiled as they packaged the food.
The volunteers smiled as they packaged the food.

MANNA volunteers can participate individually or in groups, and their ages range between 14 and 80 years old.

“We have volunteers that have been coming in for over 20 years, which is pretty impressive,” Stackhouse said. “There are some volunteers that come in once, or once a week. It totally varies on the level of commitment. The more often the volunteers are in, the more specialized the job that we ask them to do.”

The kitchen at MANNA is run by a few staff chefs who work around a plethora of volunteers, and it houses a lounge where the volunteers can take a break, drink coffee, talk and eat food. MANNA allows the volunteers to work in a relaxed and accommodating environment so they want to continue helping at the organization.

“It’s those people that come in on a regular basis that we really rely on and love because they can lead the pack,” Stackhouse said. “They can come in and know every Tuesday morning they’re going to be doing something like soup. They can just arrive and get started.”

Although MANNA requires a decent amount of help in order to deliver thousands of meals a day, the work shifts are only three hours long.

The soups were individually packaged by the volunteers for the clients.
The soups were individually packaged by the volunteers for the clients.

“Volunteers come back because it’s very rewarding to know you’re helping sick people,” said volunteer associate Glenda Cooke said. “People really like meeting new people and it’s very diverse here with people of all kinds of cultural backgrounds.”

Austin How has been volunteering in the MANNA kitchen twice a week for nearly two years and said volunteering helped shed awareness on the issues of food access.

“It’s rewarding knowing that I’m a part of something that’s effective on a large scale and doing something that helps people in our community,” said How. “I’m just a small part of helping ensure people have access to food.”

– Text and images by Kelsey Kondraski and Shayna Kleinberg

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