Henry Ford would have been proud. The volunteers at the Meals of Hope food packaging event, Saturday morning at Marco Island Charter Middle School, showed the power of assembly line production techniques, with each individual’s task contributing a small piece of the overall effort. This, plus the enthusiasm of hundreds of volunteers working to achieve a goal, is what makes it possible to get so much done in a short period of time, said Steve Popper, founder of Meals of Hope.
Deejay Kevin Fitzgerald pumped up the troops who filled the gymnasium with up-tempo tunes, and updated them as the number of meals already packed climbed. This year’s goal, up from last year’s 200,000 meals, was set at 225,000, and within 90 minutes, the troops were over halfway there. To pay for the macaroni and cheese, fortified with protein and supplements, that went into each heat-sealed bag, volunteers held numerous fundraisers throughout the year.
“We’ve already raised the money to pay for this year,” said Erik Condee, reprising his role as logistics czar for the operation. “We’re working on next year.”
With Meals of Hope’s purchasing power, each meal costs only 20 cents, making it far more effective to donate dollars to them as opposed to purchasing and donating items such as canned goods. Still, at the charity’s discounted price, Neil Snyder, Marco Island’s Meals of Hope organizer and his troops came up with $45,000 to provide the raw materials for the event.
On the gymnasium floor, you felt as though you were in the midst of a whirring machine, with teams filling bags, passing them to the volunteers running the “Seal a Meal” devices, boxing up the bags, and trundling them off in handtrucks to be counted and stacked on pallets. Marco Island Academy principal Melissa Scott and her crew boogied to “Rollin’ on the River,” and “YMCA” got the whole room going.
At the back end of the process, which even most of the volunteers never see, the pallets are wheeled out of the school on electric pallet jacks, lifted by a forklift, and transferred to a long straight truck, with these operations handled by skilled transport workers.
Sometime during the morning, said Popper, Marco Island would reach a cumulative total of one million meals packed; and the Southwest Florida organization as a whole expects to pass the 30 million mark this year. With over 100,000 people in Southwest Florida living without food security, or in other words not knowing if they will have anything to eat for their next meal, the food packed by Meals of Hope stays local, distributed primarily in Collier and Lee Counties.
Popper said that questions about who should or should not receive food assistance are “way above my pay grade. Do we give to the undocumented? If someone’s hungry, I’ll feed them.”
A Who’s Who of local civic organizations, including 50 Girl Scouts and their leaders from Troops 467, 873, and 490 participated in the “packathon,” which was coordinated by the Marco Island Sunrise Rotary Club, Marco Island Noon Rotary, and the Marco Island Kiwanis in a joint venture.
For those who want to participate in an even bigger Meals of Hope event, Popper is once again organizing a massive “pack-a-thon” on Christmas Eve at Harborside in Fort Myers.
“Between nine and 11 p.m., on Dec. 24, we’re going to pack 600,000 meals,” he said. “It’s called ‘Holidays Without Hunger.'”
Planning and fundraising for next year’s Marco Island event are already underway, and the goal has been raised again, to 2 50,000 meals. For more information on the local effort, or to make a donation, go online to feedcollier.org. For information specifically on the Christmas Eve packaging event, go to holidayswithouthunger.org.
Credit: Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent and photographer