April is National Volunteer Month, which can be taken as a time to honor volunteers or a time to encourage people pick a place to volunteer. My 2 1/2 years volunteering at MANNA were very rewarding. Recently, I helped get the word out about the MANNA study discussed below. This is my essay of my own experience at MANNA and a rhyme at the end to sum it all up.
As tears ran down my cheeks, I turned and smiled at my “onion partner” in MANNA’s stainless steel kitchen on Ranstead Street. She also had tears in her eyes, but we kept on chopping. We knew that these onions would be used to prepare nutritious meals under the watchful planning of Executive Chef Keith Lucas and his capable staff with major help from volunteers.
MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance, a non-profit agency) opened its doors in 1990 to help people dying from AIDS, when ignorance about this disease was still rampant and those suffering from it were often isolated from family and friends. Fast-forward to 2006, when MANNA expanded its program to include other critically ill neighbors with acute nutritional risk due to a life-threatening illness.
With a background in nutrition education, I am drawn to MANNA’s mission of feeding people who are at a critical time in their medical management because of acute nutritional risk. MANNA serves its clients not only with the 7-day package of nourishing meals delivered frozen weekly, but also provides nutritional counseling, “empowering individuals to battle illness and improve their quality of life.” (www.mannapa.org)
While working in the kitchen (and occasionally in the front office) I experienced an emotional high that I had not felt in a long time. Several years before, I had been a volunteer for The Hunger Project, giving four-hour lectures on the topic of Ending Hunger with three major points: Hunger exists. It doesn’t need to. Individuals can make a difference. But with MANNA, I was able to include actually working with food, and as a natural foods cook, this was right up my galley. I was “playing with food,” which I loved and, at the same time, making a difference in the lives of people with critical illnesses.
As a weekly volunteer, I learned how to put together individual packages of non-perishable food (dry cereal, crackers, etc.) and then pack them into larger bundles for delivery. I also cooked under the watchful eyes of Executive Chef Keith Lucas, Chef Sharon Olson and Chef Lynn Jamison, actually preparing some of the meals in huge pots and stainless steel cookers for the 3,116 hot meals daily on a six-week rotation menu that allows for a diversity of entrée options According Cyndi Dinger, Director of Programs, this year MANNA is budgeted to serve 850 clients or 67,000 meals. That’s a lot of cooking!
Jen Stackhouse, Volunteer Manager, states that: “MANNA runs on the power of volunteers— we could not fulfill our mission without the many amazing people who give their time each week.” And whether I was working in the kitchen or the front office, I was made to feel amazing. The efforts of the volunteers are never taken for granted or under-appreciated. Each fall there is an event called Volunteer Appreciation Day at MANNA. All the staff members pitch in to make a tasty meal for the volunteers. It’s a very popular event.
In a brief stint in the front office, I helped conduct research for MANNA to see how clients felt about the program. Speaking mainly with caretakers, usually a family member, the answers were very positive. The questionnaire included rating the meals and also what foods the person would like to see more often in his or her weekly delivery. Many people also mentioned that the delivery people were extremely helpful and felt good about the whole plan of bringing food directly to their homes. Conducting the interviews brought me full circle about MANNA’s food cycle that starts with finding clients in need of nutritional boosting because of their illness to preparing the meals in the kitchen, to packaging it for delivery, and then following up with a “How is MANNA Doing” questionnaire.
Picture of MANNA volunteers from the website: www.mannapa.org.
Recently, there was a study completed by the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning that measured the cost effectiveness of MANNA’s medically modified diets. Now there is proof that food as medicine results in lower health care costs than similar people who do not receive this service, as well as, “increased energy, improved weight, better tolerance of medication and less stress over preparing meals.” Also the study demonstrated a quicker recovery time, fewer days in the hospital, likelihood of being released to home and not a long term facility, etc. (I was told there were also even better results! To read more, go to: http://www.mannapa.org/wp-content/themes/MANNA-Firefly-Theme/pdf/manna-research.pdf)
For me, the whole MANNA experience has been powerful and positive. After my 2 ½ years at MANNA, I took a part-time job in my local school cafeteria, because I enjoyed working with a team and preparing healthful meals in a large kitchen. MANNA trained me well, because I know all the rules and regulations regarding handling food and how to prepare and take care of what is cooked. I plan to return to volunteering at MANNA in the future, because I miss the hubbub in the kitchen, the wonderful staff, and especially chopping onions side-by-side with other committed volunteers.
Below is a jingle I wrote when I worked in the kitchen, on the first day I chopped onions. Hopefully, it expresses my joy of being at MANNA and being part of something bigger than myself, where every volunteer can make a difference.
Choppin’ Onions @ MANNA
by Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson, volunteer
Choppin’ onions at MANNA’s a given;
they’re part of the recipes to keep folks livin’.
Choppin’ onions doesn’t seem like much;
it’s not a cure or even a crutch…
But it’s part of the picture that MANNA paints—
volunteers & cooks working without complaints.
It’s stirring the soup and cooling the rice
and cutting the onions, to dice and to slice.
The staff in the front office is part of the mix–
a recipe for life with no magic or tricks.
Just hard work with passion is they all do,
for cooking with love makes a wonderful stew!
P.S. My Earth Day, Every Day hint is to get out there & volunteer, because when you are part of something bigger than yourself, a shift occurs in your consciousness. Maybe think of chopping onions as a metaphor for recycling, something you do that seems very insignificant, but when done regularly with other people, you feel you are making a difference.