Located in Center City, the nonprofit organization MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) prepares, cooks and serves roughly 4,000 nutritious meals daily to people who suffer from severe and life-threatening illnesses in Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey.
“The menu has undergone a lot of change over the years, mostly to enhance the quality of the food, but also to increase options and adhere to the diet modifications that we provide,” said Nicole Laverty, nutrition and client services manager at MANNA. “So the clients can choose a diet to meet their medical needs along with their nutritional needs.”
The nonprofit began in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in 1990 as a donation-only operation, accepting food from local restaurants to serve impoverished individuals suffering from HIV and AIDS. Over time, the organization grew to operating an entire kitchen, with a staff and slew of volunteers to serve people suffering from many different illnesses, not just AIDS.
Currently, MANNA offers 11 diet modification meal plans. The meals are made fresh daily in the kitchen at MANNA headquarters and cater specifically to the dietary needs of the clients based on their illnesses. Meals are made from a pre-set menu that rotates on a six-week cycle.
“After our renovation in 2008, we went to a full nutrition program of breakfast, lunch and dinner for every day. That’s when we took the initiative to enhance the food we were sending to our clients,” Laverty said. “Our registered dieticians on staff and our executive chefs sat down and looked at our menu and figured out how we could change it.”
With the help of different recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Diabetic Association and the American Heart Association, MANNA made diet modifications to focus on healthy, fresh food that would help nourish the clients back to health. Each dietary modification offered is specifically labeled with a colored sticker when packaged in the kitchen before delivery.
“We did a nutrition analysis on all of the menu items that MANNA serves and we looked to make sure not only that the meals provide a healthy amount of calories, but they also provide an appropriate amount of protein in the diet,” Laverty said.
Some of the diet modification meal plans offered at MANNA include a heart-healthy diabetic program, along with a kidney-friendly diet low in sodium, potassium and phosphorus. MANNA offers a soft food diet or pureed diet for individuals who have difficulty chewing or swallowing; a low lactose plan, mild spice and low residue diet for clients with stomach issues; and a diet without seafood or without pork or red meat.
“We cook everything from scratch and we try to use really fresh foods,” Laverty said. “All meals are in accordance with the American Heart Association, but we also monitor the carbohydrate level, the sodium level for patients with heart disease and for kidney disease we watch how much potassium and phosphorus goes into their meal.”
Some of the menu items include French toast for breakfast, soup for lunch and a protein, whole grain and vegetable for dinner.
“For each diet modification we make sure the food meets the criteria so it’s not just good tasting, but also healthy food,” Laverty said.
Included in every delivery each week, a client receives seven breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, along with fresh fruit and healthy dessert options such as black bean brownies. MANNA offers a variety of protein options such as chicken, pork, beef and fish, in addition to a plethora of assorted vegetables, fruit and also gluten-free options. MANNA serves portion sizes based on the nationally recommended amount and also offers smaller portions to serve children.
“As a registered dietician, I am a strong believer that proper nutrition is a very vital and important role in helping someone through a life-threatening illness,” Laverty said. “So a lot of our clients are on specific treatment plans, and that is obviously the main way to treat the disease itself, but if the person isn’t eating properly by not getting enough calcium, calories or protein, that will inhibit how well the medications are working as well as how the person is feeling overall and their quality of life.”
MANNA conducted a pilot study, later published in The Journal of Primary Care, revealing that clients who received meals from MANNA recovered faster and better than clients who didn’t receive meals, and also that those who received help had reduced health care costs.
“If you have kidney disease, you have to be really careful about the food you are putting into your body,” said Susan Daugherty, executive director at MANNA. “All those nutrients are critical in how much you are consuming across the board. That’s where having 11 different diet modifications, the diet can tailor to fit the needs of the client.”
MANNA operates under the idea that food is medicine, and in addition to prescription medication, clients can help their bodies by eating nutritious, heart-healthy foods, Daugherty explained.
Dieticians work very closely with the clients to ensure satisfaction. After receiving medical records for each client, the dieticians conduct nutrition evaluations either in person or over the phone to develop diet plans catering to specific medicinal and nutritional needs.
“Nutrition plays a huge role in the health of our clients,” Laverty said. “The goal is to nourish them back to health.”
– Text, images and video by Kelsey Kondraski and Shayna Kleinberg