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Manna on Main Street Interview

Interviewed by Rachel Brown on September 3, 2019 (with a May 2020 update)

From serving hot meals seven days a week to offering comprehensive life skills courses, Manna on Main Street in North Penn, Montgomery County approaches the fight to end hunger from all angles. Food Resource Director Britt Peterson is at the helm of Manna’s food distribution programs, which served over 39,000 meals and distributed 482,394 pounds of food in the last year alone. We talked with Britt about her strategies for keeping her programs running smoothly while constantly looking for new ways to better serve those in need in her community.   

Coalition Against Hunger (CAH): What was your path to becoming Food Resource Director at Manna on Main Street?

Britt Peterson (BP): I have been here full-time for about five years, but before that, I was a volunteer.  Manna was looking for someone to run the food pantry, so I became the market manager. I moved into my current role shortly after that.

CAH: What programs do you oversee?

BP: I’m in charge of food flow here at Manna, including food coming in and going out of the market, the government food programs, food drives, food safety at the market, acquiring new food donors and corporate food partners, talking to people about how to run a food drive, our community gardens and more. Manna is also the hub for milk and produce and the Montgomery Anti-Hunger Network (MAHN) Van. I work with the pantries and MAHN in our area in regard to distribution of this food and any excess food to share.  I also keep up with any updates as to what food is needed on our website.

CAH: Manna adopted the SmartChoice program about three years ago to track inventory and ensure that nutritious choices are available to clients. How does it work, and how is it going?

BP: I began by going to three grocery stores, scanning tons of UPC symbols, and connecting them with the product options in the SmartChoice software to create a database of foods that we often have in our market. All foods that come in to Manna are sorted into broad categories—for example, under cereals, the options are “cereal-healthy,” “cereal,” and “cereal-kids.” We have linked hundreds of items into our system, but we still have foods donated every day that don’t fit into an existing category and need to be linked. Next, we assign point values to each item. The healthier an item is, the less points it is worth. A healthy cereal might be one point, while an unhealthy cereal might be four. When our clients shop, they have a maximum point value to work with based on the ages of the people they are shopping for and the caloric intake that is appropriate for each person in the family. A ten-year-old, for example, is going to need more calories than a two-year-old. The points are then broken out to reflect the MyPlate model, so a certain percentage of the points they have to shop with are designated for fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, and so on. The whole model is designed to demonstrate that you can get a lot more food if you eat healthy. The system is working really well so far. People are learning a lot about healthier choices, and it makes it easy for us to quickly see what is in our inventory, too. I can set up the system to notify me when we’re down to 25 cans of tuna fish, for example, so we always know where we stand.

CAH: Clients at Manna have the option to shop online. How did that program get off the ground?

BP: Online shopping ties in with SmartChoice. Once you have your inventory entered into the system, it can be made available to view online so that clients are only seeing what we actually have in stock. The online system also tracks people’s SmartChoice points as they shop, so when they add a food to their cart, they can see it deduct from their total points for the trip. We then pull their orders, and clients can pick up their food during market hours. It’s especially helpful for people who work or have families, and don’t have the time to come and wait at the market. I also know of some people who are sick and order their own food online, but their neighbors come to pick it up. The ability to order online helps us put more food in the hands of people who need it.

CAH: Manna has many community partners. Do you have any insight for other pantries on how to build and maintain those relationships?

BP: It starts with taking the time to talk to new organizations who reach out and helping them help you. Most people are really just looking for ideas and first steps, so connecting with them and making them feel supported goes a long way. Also, when they come to drop off food, being very excited with them about the work they’ve done regardless of the relative size of their donation is always appreciated. It’s also important to send a thank you to your partner organizations. A lot of times, we’ll tell them approximately how many people they helped with their donation. They really like to hear that so they can pass the good news on to the people in their company.

CAH: What are your goals for your program?

BP:  We began a seniors’ program this year, and we are planning to expand it. Seniors living in affordable housing can order their food online and have it delivered, a program we began first with the seniors living upstairs in this building. Now, we are also serving the four buildings at Schwenksville Manor. Many of the seniors we serve can’t drive, and have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. We are going to expand that program to another senior center, Derstine Run, in October.

CAH: How were you able to transition to clients bringing their own bags?

BP: One of the first things I did when I started was give everyone about four months’ notice that beginning on a certain date, they must bring their own bags and that if they don’t bring their own bags, they will not be able to shop. It’s amazing how quickly people could remember to bring bags when we told them they couldn’t shop otherwise. We give everyone bags the first time they shop, and remind them that they need to bring their bags back. If someone shows up with bags that are not clean, we will swap them out. We also tell people that if they are not able to get bags but they call us and let us know the day before, we will have bags waiting for them. That almost never happens, though. The key is not to deviate—that’s the most important message I could give. When you let one person do it, it gets around and the rule is useless.

CAH: How do you address client needs regarding food allergies and culturally-appropriate foods?

BP: We do have a gluten-free shelf, as well as vegan products stocked. Since all of our food is donated the exact foods we have varies, but we almost always have some sort of plant-based meat. We always have lactose-free milk, too. If they’re ordering online, clients can note any food restrictions so that we can pick out items that work for them the best that we can. Again, by telling our donors what we need, we are able to keep these products in stock. Researching your clientele’s staple diet by ethnicity will also give you an idea the staples in their diet.  For example, okra is a staple in many of our client’s diet so I began asking some of our Farm donors to grow okra and we began growing it in our gardens. It flies off the shelf when we get it in.

CAH: What is the top piece of advice you would give to fellow leaders in the area’s anti-hunger community?

BP: I come from a sales background, and I’ve learned that if you don’t ask people for what you want, you’re not going to get it. In the past, we would get lots of donations that we didn’t need. Now, I’m more comfortable saying to our donors, “thank you so much” and I then strike up a conversation that usually leads to what items do we need the most. This gives me the opportunity to tell them items and to guide them to check our most needed list on our website. It’s really working well. Similarly, it’s great how many donations we receive around the holidays, but I’ve been telling our donors what we really need are donations in the summer when things are slower. This summer, we didn’t have a lull because our donors know that this is a time of year when they can really make an impact. We also noticed that some of our clients were using bars of soap to wash their dishes, so we started asking donors to bring in hygiene and cleaning products as well. Again, it’s about asking for what you need—people really do want to help. Our Facebook page has been great for getting the word out about exactly what we need also.

CAH: Is there anything else you would like to add?

BP: In addition to our pantry, Manna runs a free 12-week culinary program. We bring people in and teach them life skills, baking skills, barista skills, knife skills, as well as strategies to just help them get through life more easily. We also prepare them for the ServSafe Certification. Once they pass the test, we help them with their resume and with getting a job. It’s a program we are really proud of.

CAH:  It is now early May of 2020 and we are catching up with Britt to find out what changes Manna on Main has made since the pandemic.  Britt, can you update us on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Manna on Main Street’s operations?

BP:  Manna is currently handing out bags of groceries and meals 7 days per week due to COVID-19; online ordering ceased due to high demand. Bulk deliveries are prepared for our Senior homes and our Advanced Living Residents have their groceries delivered to their doors

Common Grounds was paused mid-March in response to COVID-19. Manna is piloting a late May virtual training program with its current students to determine if a virtual or hybrid model will be offered early fall for open enrollment. We look forward to graduating our current cohort, and welcoming new trainees soon!