What if everyone in a completely filled Memorial Auditorium and a completely filled Tivoli Theatre — and then some — reported to a warehouse to offer their services to feed children around the world?
That’s essentially what’s happening this weekend in Chattanooga.
More than 6,000 Chattanooga area residents have reported or will report to Covenant Values Foundation trustee Carey Brown's warehouse on Amnicola Highway to assist Minneapolis-based nonprofit Feed My Starving Children, in collaboration with locally based Covenant Values Foundation, to pack 1.5 million meals.
“This brings the whole community together,” says Ann Hill, a member of the Feed My Starving Children’s development team. “Young people, older people — everybody packs together toward a common goal.”
Feed My Starving Children holds 175 packing events a year, most smaller than the one in Chattanooga. Nationwide annually, 600,000 volunteers pack 155 million meals for the nonprofit.
Locally, Covenant Values Foundation matched each dollar raised by the nonprofit at a 2-to-1 ratio. So the nonprofit’s $110,000 netted $220,000 for a combined $330,000 worth of food.
At the warehouse one evening earlier this week, 250 hairnet-clad volunteers stood around 20 squares of tables to put together, in assembly-line fashion, packages of hunger-crushing rice.
One person poured a measured scoop of vitamin-fortified chicken flavoring through a giant funnel into a plastic bag. The next person added a scoop of dehydrated vegetables. A scoop of soy protein followed. Then rice was added to complete the packet.
The packet was adjusted to weigh between 380 and 400 grams, sealed and packed 36 to a box. The box was taped and placed on a palate, which was wrapped, strapped and loaded onto a semi trailer.
Though Feed My Starving Children distributes meals through missionaries and reliable officials to schools and orphanages in 70 countries, the meals packed in Chattanooga will go first to Chicago, then to the Philippines.
While Americans hear of how much government aid gets wasted in the wake of natural disasters abroad, Hill said 99.8 percent of the nonprofit’s meals go where they’re intended.
“We have huge accountability standards,” she says.
Kentrell Pittman, a sophomore at Red Bank High School, was packing on his 16th birthday with other members of the school’s sports teams. He said he couldn’t think of a better place to be.
“I’ve always dreamed about helping kids, of doing things like feeding the needy,” he says. “I always thought, ‘When I get rich, I’m going to go back and help other people.’ I’m glad I’m here. It made me feel good.”
Bill Beckley, 62, director of human resources for Miller Industries, was part of a team of 16 packers from his company. Another group of 30 is to come Saturday.
“We felt like it was a good cause, a good team-building exercise,” he says. “We had a ball. Once we got into it, we got a good system going.”
The warehouse can accommodate up to 360 per shift, according to Hill. Most of the volunteers arrive in groups with companies, churches, schools and organizations.
The Chattanooga Fire Department and the Chattanooga Police Department had teams. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga had a general group and a separate group of athletes.
All Lookout Mountain Elementary School students came, as did the entire eighth grade of Eastbrook Middle School in Dalton, Ga. Volunteers also arrived from Abba’s House, ChristWay Community Church and City Church.
In addition, Hill says, many people come as individuals or families. One man at a recent event elsewhere in the country was celebrating his 100th birthday, she says.
Tristan Nelson, 7, and Lily Nelson, 9, of Flintstone, Ga., came with their mother.
“I thought it would be real fun to pack,” Lily says.
At the beginning of each shift, packing volunteers see a brief film that explains what the organization does and how the operation works. They are shown before and after photos of children whose lives were impacted by the food.
In the before photo, Marilyn lies on her back, a painfully thin Haitian girl who appears to be not quite 1 year old. In the second photo, the toddler wears a pink T-shirt with the slogan “My Heart Belongs to Tennessee” and looks well-fed and happy.
“The education component is important to us,” says Hill. “We want kids to understand Marilyn.”
At the end of each shift, those who desire can pray over the food. They also can sample the rice mix, which has the consistency and filling capacity of oatmeal.
“It’s as profound an experience in the packing room,” Hill says, “as it is for the people who eat.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...