Dozens of volunteers donated their time and energy at the Food Bank of East Alabama Aug. 3 to kick off the 2022-23 campaign year for United Way of Lee County. The volunteers were divided into teams, each working together in a hyped-up effort to package 30,000 meals for food-insecure individuals and families across the county.

While the local United Way typically kicks off its annual campaign with a breakfast, Executive Director Tipi Miller said the organization decided to lead a community-wide service project this year instead.

“We just replaced the breakfast with this type event, which I think is even better because you’re really getting into a service project and really getting to work,” said Miller, who was named executive director of the local United Way earlier this year. “It’s neat to look at the signup sheet and see that it’s people from different companies from Auburn, Opelika, Lee County … I think it’s neat to see everybody come together and help the community.”

For the second time, United Way enlisted the help of Kansas-based nonprofit Numana to lead the event. Leaders Rachael and Chad Topper have a wealth of experience hosting similar events in other communities and kept the volunteers’ energy up by blasting music in the warehouse and celebrating each milestone achieved on the way to the 30,000-meal goal.

Rachael emphasized the importance of local efforts to fight world hunger, noting that it “starts at home.”

“We facilitate meal-packing events just like this on any scale, from one table up to a million meals in one single event in one single day, which is a ton of fun,” she said. “We are so excited and honored to be able to partner with people across the United States to service the globe.”

According to Miller, the meals consist of rice, beans and other dry goods that can supplement a protein to make a filling, nutritious meal. The volunteers measured each ingredient to ensure that each package has the same amount of food.

Eric Canada, United Way treasurer and leader of Group 1 at the event, said he was impressed with his team’s efforts.

“It’s going great,” he said. “These guys are packing machines.”

About half an hour into the event, Rachael announced the volunteers had reached 5,000 meals packaged. To celebrate, she asked Auburn Mayor Ron Anders to ring a gong. Anders thanked the volunteers for sacrificing a morning to serve the community before giving the gong five rings.

Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, who was also in attendance, said he was glad to see Auburn and Opelika working together to support the entire county — a welcomed change from the days when each community had its own separate United Way. “It’s going to be a very successful campaign,” he added.

Miller said the Food Bank of East Alabama and its partners will be able to distribute the packaged meals as needed. With 200 partner agencies and 44,000 people served each month, food bank Executive Director Martha Henk said there will be “no difficulty in getting the food out.”

“It’s a big operation,” she said. “It’s a great privilege to be a part of it. We have really experienced a great shortage of food. We’re hit in the same way everybody else is with the supply chain issues, and a lot of the food that we got from the federal government in the beginning as COVID relief — those programs have ended.

“I had … a Zoom meeting with all the Alabama food bank directors, and we’re all saying the same things. The racks are getting more and more empty, so things like this just take on more importance than ever.”

According to Henk, one in six people living in Alabama are experiencing food insecurity, and that number translates to about 23,900 people in Lee County alone.

“Our first priority … is going to be support of our senior Brown Bag programs, or box programs,” Henk explained. “We’ll be distributing the food out quickly that way. They got some of that product last year and really enjoyed it. We got a lot of great feedback on that. And then we have a mobile food pantry where we load up our trucks, drive to an area — oftentimes quite remote — and then we direct distribution off the truck … so it’s going to have a pretty tremendous impact.”

Miller said it’s also a crucial time for families to get the nourishment they need as children are returning to school.

“I think that makes a huge difference, and … I think now it’s even more important because we do want our students to go to school well-fed and ready to learn and prepared in that way,” she said.

Henk expressed gratitude for the volunteers’ time and said they will have a “really large impact” in fighting food insecurity in the area.