Nationwide challenges such as rising costs of living and the lasting economic impact of the pandemic have put a strain on families everywhere. In Montgomery County, residents range from Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Latin American backgrounds and many more cultural backgrounds. Many of these immigrant families face stigma, language barriers and worry about immigration status when it comes to reaching out to food programs for their children. This is why Manna Food Center prioritizes listening to members of these communities to learn how to best serve their needs.
“We have 150 countries represented amongst the student body in our school system,” said Jenna Umbriac, the director of programs for Manna Food Center. “Food is so linked to people's culture.” Umbriac says that diversity of the community both challenges and excites her when it comes to addressing hunger. Families use food as a way of staying connected to their cultural heritage. This presents a challenge for food assistance organizations who provide basic staples such as canned foods and other non-perishable food items. Manna wants to ensure that the food they provide are things that children are familiar with, and will enjoy eating. These challenges are what inspired Manna to listen to people in the county to better understand how to support them. “We wanted to reach out to those communities and really try to build some trust,” explained Umbriac.
In an initial meeting with their local Ethiopian community center, the idea for a voucher program was introduced. “We go back to that question of ‘how do we diversify inventory?’ They're talking about very specific ingredients, like injera, a staple in the Ethiopian diets that we would never stock. It just wouldn't make sense for us to do so,” said Umbriac.
Partnerships were then created with local Ethiopian markets. Residents would now have the option of using $30 vouchers, as opposed to just receiving pre-selected boxes of food. “People love to have choice. When you are strapped for cash, choice is one of the first things that goes out the window. Especially, when you're relying on a food assistance provider where you're basically stuck with whatever it is we give you,” said Umbriac.
In addition to the voucher program, Manna Food Center has taken other steps to return a sense of control and dignity to its community. They offer pop-up marketplaces and a mobile kitchen where kids can cook and learn about healthy meals. They also run a weekend bag program that provides lunches to children on the weekends.
No Kid Hungry has supported Manna Food Center with emergency grants during the pandemic, funds to support their weekend backpack program and to support programs that feed families with young children.
With your support, more organizations like Manna Food Center can continue helping children have the three meals they need to thrive every day.
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