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Food is the ultimate perishable product. The term “shelf life” – which is used to describe the life span of just about everything we buy these days – was originally coined as a measure of how long food can remain on a shelf before it’s unfit to eat.
And once food is harvested – or comes out of a factory – the clock starts ticking.
For a food bank, shelf life is a constant concern. MANNA FoodBank in Asheville spends as much of its energies moving food out the door as it does bringing food in.
This past spring, I visited MANNA, a nonprofit serving 16 counties in Western North Carolina. MANNA collects, stores, warehouses and helps distribute food to hungry families through partners like pantries, soup kitchens, emergency food suppliers and other nonprofits.
“Our goal isn’t just to distribute more food – it’s to distribute more nutritious food,” MANNA Executive Director Cindy Threlkeld told me. “The people we serve tell us they’d like to eat healthier, but fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive. They’re not choosing to eat unhealthy foods because they like them – they don’t really have a choice.”
Did You Know?
• 90% of the 107,000 people who relied food pantries said their budgets forced them to buy the cheapest food available regardless of its nutritional value.
• In the past year, three out of four households surveyed had to choose between buying groceries or paying utility bills. More than half of those households were forced to choose between buying groceries or paying for housing.
• In counties that have significant levels of food insecurity, the price of food is rising faster than in other areas. In counties where large numbers of people are food insecure – with limited access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food – the average meal costs $3 or more. The national average is $2.74 per meal.
Beyond Shelf Life
When you’re hungry and don’t have a lot of money, the price tag trumps the nutrition label. You just need to fill your family’s empty stomachs, so you try to buy as much food as you can. At that point, nutrition is a luxury you can’t really afford.
Of course, fresh fruits and vegetables have a shorter shelf life than less healthy packaged foods. And the folks at MANNA know they have to distribute that nutritious food quickly.
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Partnering for Progress in Western North Carolina
To get food to the people who need it as efficiently as possible, MANNA works through a network of 248 partner agencies who distribute food in MANNA’s service area, a region that spans a wide range of geography. In remote mountainous areas, distributing food can be complicated.
Beyond the logistical obstacles, there are social ones as well. For some people who need assistance, it’s understandably difficult to ask for help. To remove some of the stigma from the process, MANNA works with community service navigators to distribute produce at biweekly farmers’ market-style stations, where members of the community can find nutritious food, socialize with their neighbors and even take advantage of free health services like blood pressure screenings and weight monitoring.
With the rebound of the U.S. economy over the last few years, you might assume that business has been slowing down at food banks in our state. But the economic recovery has left many behind. “MANNA distributed about 5 million pounds of food in 2010, which was right in the middle of the recession,” Threlkeld told me. “Last year, we distributed 15 million pounds of food. In four years, we tripled our numbers. The urgency of our mission has been increasing.”
Like other food banks, MANNA relies on the generosity of nearly 7,000 volunteers who help sort and package food for distribution each year. And while MANNA is fortunate to receive food donations from farmers, supermarkets and food producers, cash flow is a constant concern for any nonprofit and financial support is always appreciated.
If you’re interested in volunteering as an individual or part of a group, visit MANNA’s website for details.
Your support is urgently needed. Tick, tick, tick…