By WHITNEY BURDETTE ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLESTON — Thanks to the vision of a Charleston minister, the city's hungry have a place to go for a warm meal.
Jim Lewis began Manna Meal in the mid-1970s after he noticed the city's poor knocking on the door of St. John's Episcopal Church consistently asking for food. An initial plan involved the church's outreach ministry buying food from the Quarrier Diner for low-income people. Then, Lewis began serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bowls of soup. Now, 36 years later, Manna Meal serves an average of 381 customers a day.
"We are here 365 days a year," said Jean Simpson, executive director of Manna Meal. "We never close. We're open every single holiday. We open at 7 in the morning and serve breakfast from 8 to 9. At lunch, we serve from 11:30 to 1, except on Sundays which is 12:30 to 2."
The organization is a nonprofit that receives grant money and food from the federal government in addition to appeal letters sent to local business, individuals and churches. Local restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores also donate nearly expired items for the organization to use.
"Kroger on Delaware Avenue is just hugely wonderful to use," Simpson said. "We have volunteers who go pick up food there seven days a week. They go through all their vegetables, meat products, milk, bread — anything that is out of date (but still good) they give to us."
Spring Hill Bakery in South Charleston also donates day-old breads and pastries. Simpson said she thinks the bakery has donated to Manna Meal for 15 years or more.
In 2009, Manna Meal began its own community garden. Spearheaded by Myra Dolan, 194 volunteers worked 1,000 hours last year to produce 3,000 pounds of food.
"We have a very dedicated volunteer named Myra Dolan," Simpson said. "She came up with the idea that it might be beneficial for our soup kitchen and food pantry to have fresh vegetables. She was the forerunner trying to get that started, and she's been working with us ever since."
The garden, located on Rutledge Road, expanded this year to cover about one-third of an acre. Simpson said she hopes the garden can once again produce 3,000 pounds of fresh food for the kitchen and food pantry. In addition to fresh vegetables, volunteers also grow flowers that are sold to raise money for the organization.
Manna Meal is taking on another project this year — helping Covenant House reform its food pantry. Covenant House currently does not have the same volunteer base or access to food Manna Meal enjoys, but the two organizations do share the same goal.
"The food pantry at the Covenant House had limited volunteers and limited hours they were open," Simpson said. "Now, what Manna Meal is trying to do is help them expand their volunteer base and help them provide more food. Right now they get food from the government and have a can-a-thon drive every year. What we'd like to see in their food pantry is more fresh products like bread, fruits and vegetables. We get so many donations, so we're trying to spread that around to them."
Simpson said the East End of Charleston is a food desert, meaning residents don't have easy access to grocery stores. The elderly and low-income populations in that area of the city are pretty substantial as well and are often forced to pay gas station prices for staples such as milk and bread.
Covenant House food pantry customers can only visit the pantry once a month. Simpson said she hopes Manna Meal can help change that so residents can have access to fresher foods more often.
Simpson stressed that Manna Meal, although housed in a church, is not a faith-based organization. Manna Meal separated from St. Johns in 1980, but church parishioners allow the organization to use space.
"St. Johns has supported us through the years," she said. "It was a tough decision for them to open their building for a soup kitchen. We have 381 people tromping through this building every single day, flushing toilets, drinking water, washing their hands, eating and that's hard on a building, that's for sure."
Simpson said anyone can come get a meal at the soup kitchen. Although the organization began with the goal of feeding the homeless, volunteers now feed seniors, families and others with low incomes.