Monday, October 11, 2010

Manna Meal – Feeding the Hungry in Charleston, WV

Manna Meal is the largest feeding program we’ve visited so far, and quite a program it is! It began in 1978 with a few people fed at a table in the kitchen of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, WV.

Today, Manna Meal serves breakfast to about 125 people and lunch to about 225 people 365 days a year.

We met all four full-time staff members. From right to left, they are Director Jean Simpson, Assistant Director Sandy Perrine, Outreach Coordinator Rhondell Miller, and Lead Cook Raj Pongsugree. They are assisted by 4 part-time staff and about 130 volunteers a week. Many of the volunteers have been coming at a regular time once a week for up to 20 years.

Running Manna Meal is not like catering meals for a large group. Here, only about ¼ of the food served is purchased (mostly funded by private donations). The remaining ¾ comes from donors such as grocery stores, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, catered civic functions, the farmer’s market, individual people’s gardens, and Manna Meal’s own garden. Much of the donated food is dishes already prepared or items no longer salable in stores.

Each day’s menu is rapidly planned based on food that happens to come in. One day they might get a donation of several boxes of nearly over-ripe fruit, 40 dozen eggs, and 50 pizzas, so there will be fruit salad and pizza for lunch that day and scrambled eggs for breakfast the next day.  Still, guests are offered hearty, well-balanced meals.

On our day volunteering at Manna Meal, breakfast consisted of sausage patties, potatoes, muffins, bread, cereal, milk, bananas, and coffee. Lunch was pork tenderloin, bread, scalloped potatoes, tossed salad, baked apples with dried cherries, dessert (pastries, cookies, brownies), and beverage (orange juice, water, coffee).  

We helped serve breakfast and lunch, and in between we prepared salad for 200. The kitchen (due to be renovated this November) was a very busy place. While we were making salad, others were cleaning and cooking potatoes, checking on apples in the oven, slicing pork, filling orange juice glasses, cutting desserts, preparing the rolling carts used to deliver food to the dining room, and dealing with a pair of copier salespeople who’d come to try to donate a copier. The hubbub increased when the volunteer servers arrived, greeted everyone in the kitchen, found their aprons and sanitary gloves, and lined up to deliver the food carts.

Manna Meal seemed to us to be especially in tune with the needs of their patrons.
  • Everyone who comes is fed – there are no requirements to register or qualify, only to behave in a non-disruptive way.
  • Food prepared is tuned to the likes and needs of the patrons. For example, we were instructed to cut the salad into small pieces to make it easier to eat for those with dental problems. While Manna Meal can’t prepare multiple choices for one meal, they assist those with diabetes or other health conditions in choosing what to eat of the ample meal offered.
  • Anything Manna Meal can’t use is given away to patrons. In addition to bread and other fresh food, they give away clothing and other donated items.
  • Manna Meal coordinates with a huge number of other organizations in Charleston. One such organization is Covenant House, which provides services such as laundry, medical assistance, help with rent and utility payments, a food pantry located just a block away from Manna Meal, and vouchers for clothing, household goods, and furniture. We also heard about other churches’ dinner programs, men’s shelters, women’s shelters, and a veterans’ outreach program. Nurses and mental health workers come during lunch a couple of times a week to assist Manna Meal patrons. Occasionally, a transitional housing person comes, too. Some of this coordination occurs through Kanawha Valley Collective, a group of organizations focused on addressing social problems such as poverty and homelessness.
The patrons of Manna Meal fit all descriptions -- black, white, Hispanic, children to elderly, men and women, mobile to wheel-chair bound, homeless or housed, unemployed or employed or even full-time students. At any one meal, there are usually about 75% men and just a few children. Probably about half have mental health issues, some of which are only apparent over time. Many have substance abuse problems. Many are people trying to get back on their feet after being incarcerated or losing their housing. Some are there for most every meal, while others come only occasionally, or leave for an extended time and return years later. Many know each other well, greet others, and talk over their meal. Some come in their work clothes -- security workers, store employees, nurses’ aides, for example. These jobs just don’t pay well enough for them to pay their bills and eat, too. About half are probably getting SNAP benefits, but they aren’t enough to make it through the month.

As Assistant Director Sandy said, “People who come are stereotyped way too much. Many are working, doing what they can, and it’s just not enough.”  In Charleston, it's Manna Meal ensuring that the hungry can eat.


  1. Betsy & Carolyn, Thank you so much for coming by Manna Meal and spending a few days with us. Can't wait to read about the rest of your journey.
    "God gives us two hands, one to receive with and one to give with." Billy Graham

  2. Wilsie Herlihy - Covenant House - Charleston West VirginiaOctober 11, 2010 at 7:05 PM

    Betsy and Carolyn,
    I would like to thank you for so accurately and eloquently describing Manna Meal's contribution to Charleston, West Virginia.
    I was a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, until I started working at Covenant House about 5 months ago. When I started doing out-reach work at Manna Meal I was STARTLED,I had no idea that so much poverty exsisted in my community.
    Thank you for facing hunger in America, and for shedding light on the severity of it.
    Wilsie Herlihy