Three pillars: Combating food insecurity and reducing hunger by increasing access to nutritious food; encouraging and enabling healthy eating by spreading knowledge and strengthening community food skills; and connecting members of Montgomery County to relevant service providers. Since 1983, the Manna Food Center has been a driving force in the community to end hunger and serve an environment of complete food security. People who work with Manna, which is first and foremost a food bank that serves upwards of 40,000 people each year, believe that the residents of a community where hunger does not exist have unlimited power to be self-sufficient providers to their families and their community. Manna Food Center's Executive Director, Jackie DeCarlo, took some time to chat with Locals about her own professional experiences and Manna's goal of ending hunger in Montgomery County.
Manna staff members take a group of moms out on a nutrition education tour.
Can you talk a little bit about your role as Executive Director at Manna Food Center?I love my job because I work with great people and partners! I head up a team of two dozen staff dedicated to our mission. We have drivers who start their day at 6:30 a.m. rescuing food from local grocery stores, nutrition educators who go to every corner of the county to help neighbors shop for good food on a budget, client services specialists who process an average of 3,600 requests for food a month, and other behind-the-scenes staffers who help translate our vision for a hunger free Montgomery County into a reality. My role is to lead Manna staff and volunteers in charting our course for the future and mobilizing the resources we need to be successful—including interacting with the clients we serve and policy makers who are at the forefront of social services. Manna needs food, friends and funds to end hunger. My role is to build the partnership and solicit the support necessary to keep the center of ending hunger in the county strong.
How has your background professional experiences influenced your passion for all of the roles you hold throughout Montgomery County?I came to Manna Food Center and Montgomery County wanting to contribute the experience I had working with international programs to confront our local issues. Whether working in Africa or Latin America on fair trade issues, or here in the States fighting for farmworker and immigrant rights, I have seen time and time again how important it is for the people most impacted by an issue to be involved in creating solutions. As Executive Director of Manna and serving on the MoCo Food Council, Nonprofit Montgomery and the Advisory Council of Maryland Hunger Solutions, my commitment is to expanding programming by benefitting from the voices and perspectives of those we serve.
For you, what has been the most rewarding part of creating a viable environment for creating positive changes and reducing food insecurity in the community?The diversity of experiences—whether it is volunteers committed to making their community better or a business wanting to do the right thing—I’ve been very inspired by how Montgomery County has what it takes to solve a very complex and long-term problem like food insecurity. I believe we can progress because we have all the assets we need—capable and committed people, a patriotic and progressive mindset, incredible natural resources—to move forward and not just retain the status quo. We also have many examples to follow. Manna has endorsed the EPA’s Food Waste Challenge as well as the UN’s goal of Zero Hunger, both by 2030, and we see ourselves as putting into practice national and international strategies to achieve our own local goals.
After observing the testimonials from participants in Manna’s nutrition classes, do you feel that education about the value of purchasing more nutritious food at a slightly higher cost actually influences the way people buy groceries?Seeing our participants in nutrition classes is very inspiriting, but I wouldn’t agree that our classes indicate that all the nutritious food has to be at a higher cost. Our curriculum includes strategies for buying in bulk, purchasing generic options, and also expanding recipes by reducing waste. For example, you can avoid tossing a ripe banana away by turning it into a smoothie. As far as whether or not we influence people, our pre-post surveys indicate that participants do want to change their patterns. While it will take more than one class to guarantee a new habit forms, Manna is committed to helping people make choices by offering a wide array of nutrition education tools, such as recipes and cooking demos.
Of the services and programs you have offered to those in need, which have you found to be the most visibly beneficial?Our food distribution programs—monthly Food for Family packages and weekly Smart Sacks bags—definitely have a direct impact on those receiving the items. Our clients come to Manna an average of about 5 times a year. This means they come to us when they most need of support, and we are there for them every time. The benefits are timely and tangible. Recently our advocacy programming has also demonstrated success. An 89-year-old widow who receives food from Manna, Margaret Dubinsky, testified twice before General Assembly committees and helped win passage of an expansion of SNAP (food stamps) for senior citizens. We are waiting for Governor Hogan to sign the legislation that will increase monthly benefits from $16 a month to $30 for those over 62 years of age.
Did the Manna Food Center begin with a smaller number of services/programs? How have the programs grown and changed over time?Manna was created by the community when faith-groups, the local government, and socially responsible businesses agreed it was not acceptable to have neighbors going hungry. Our doors were opened by volunteers in 1983 serving dozens of people out of a small pantry in a vacant elementary school. We now operate a 12,000 square foot warehouse to distribute about 4 million pounds of food a year. We also employ a Registered Dietitian to guide our programs and policies with a nutrition focus. Manna doesn’t want to be only a charity handing out food—although that is necessary--we want to be a social change agent that helps people move to self-sufficiency. We see hunger as a justice and a health issue. This evolution reflects the needs and interests of our community. We will continue to change as we listen to those we serve and we create broad-based collective impact efforts.
What has been the most surprising part of Manna’s evolution as a company?Although I wasn’t here at the time to witness it directly, I believe that Manna’s turn toward nutrition education about five years ago was the most significant. But, as is often the case with change, it has been a slow shift in the mindset of all of our stakeholders. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me—change is rarely overnight—but it is humbling to have to address unexpected resistance and balance viewpoints. I am a big believer in the value of integrating diverse perspectives, and I just have to remind myself that change is a marathon not a sprint, as the saying goes.
As the company continues to expand, what are some goals for the near future?Right now we are in the early stages of a three-year strategic planning process. I believe we will continue efforts at being client-centered by strengthening our programs that include participants in their design; we will continue to use data to drive decision making about where and how we share food; and we will continue to make the best of our great county’s many contributions to our work—volunteers, financial donors, and faith leaders to name a few.
All photos courtesy of Manna Food Center.