Almost 5 million meals with the protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to sustain hungry children and their families will be headed from Minnesota to Somalia, thanks to a four-day food-packing marathon at the St. Paul RiverCentre sponsored by Feed My Starving Children.
Somalia is experiencing severe drought after two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall. In the worst affected areas, lack of water has wiped out crops and killed livestock, forcing people to sell their assets and borrow food and money to survive.
In March, the United Nations said at least 6.2 million people — about half the country — were grappling with acute food shortages. Over a two-day period, at least 110 people died of hunger in just a single region, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire told National Public Radio.
Feed My Starving Children, in conjunction with Love, Somalia, has already shipped 3.5 million meals to Somalia this year. Its four-day event in St. Paul, which ended Monday, had a goal of 6 million meals. When the doors closed Monday evening, 4,906,440 meals had been hand-packed by volunteers, said Allison Schwartz, communications manager for Feed My Starving Children, making it the largest mobile food packing event in the organization's history.
The event had a fundraising goal of $1.5 million, as well; $85,000 was raised online, and Schwartz didn't have any updated figures Monday.
The group has three permanent food-packing sites in Minnesota (in Eagan, Chanhassen and Coon Rapids), three in Illinois and one in Arizona. Those are open six days a week, with five two-hours shifts each day. All the work is done by volunteers.
Jodi Annis of Minnetonka brought her 6-year-old daughter, Leona, to work a two-hour shift on Sunday. Friends brought their children.
"We packed 945 boxes," Annis said. "And each box has 18 bags. It was pretty remarkable. Back in January, when the administration turned over, I got inspired to do more community work and help out as much as I can," she said. "This one came up on my radar."
The work was a learning tool for Leona, too. That morning, her mom said, Leona couldn't decide what to eat for breakfast.
"She was hemming and hawing. I said, you could go hungry, which is what the Somalis are doing right now because they can't grow food," Annis said. "She thought that was terrible."
The whole experience "was a blast," Annis said. "They had great music and people were pumped up and excited. It always feels great to help out other people.
Feed My Starving Children had hoped for 30,000 volunteers. About 19,000 people signed up online and many more showed up as walk-ins, Schwartz said.
Each of the "MannaPack" meals contains rice, textured soy protein, dehydrated vegetables and a vegetarian flavoring with more than 20 micronutrients. The ingredients are specially formulated to help children thrive and to reverse and prevent malnutrition. When the meals arrive at their destination, they can be supplemented with other vegetables and meat.
"The volunteers' hands are literally the last hands that touch the meals before it's being opened in other countries to serve children," Schwartz said. The meals are distributed to communities and are often used in school programs, she said.
Feed My Starving Children uses the money raised to buy the food. Schwartz said 90 percent of donations go directly to the program.
The group works with partner agencies in Somalia and 70 other countries to ship and distribute the food. The food packed in the RiverCentre event probably will reach Somalia in about two months, she said.
For Somalia, this is the second drought in six years. In 2011, more than 250,000 people died during a drought and famine.