"Manny," a retrofitted school bus, serves as a mobile kitchen and pop-up pantry. Credit: MANNA FOOD CENTER

Manna Food Center Chief Executive Officer Jackie DeCarlo has one goal: Make sure everyone has access to healthy food.

To help reach that goal, DeCarlo and her team at the Gaithersburg food bank developed “Manny,” a mobile kitchen and pop-up pantry that operates in Montgomery County. Manny was launched in September to promote community leadership and advocacy about nutrition education and to expand Manna’s reach beyond its Gaithersburg headquarters. According to DeCarlo, one in three schoolchildren in the county is food insecure because of financial and transportation barriers and a lack of knowledge about food preparation.

“We decided it’s not just enough to give people food, we also have to help them use that food and build the skills for healthy cooking,” said DeCarlo, 52, who lives in Kensington. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we turn this into a commercial kitchen as well?’ So it became dual purpose—not just teaching these people things, but also listening to what’s helpful given their cultural needs or health concerns. So that made it a classroom on wheels.”

DeCarlo’s efforts did not go unnoticed. On March 13, she was one of five women from around the world who received Sodexo’s Global Women Stop Hunger Award during a gala in Paris. The award is sponsored by the Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by the French food services and facilities management company Sodexo.

The event was part of the organization’s annual fundraising dinner, which brings together donors, partners and volunteers. The ceremony highlights women on the forefront of fighting hunger in their communities. Recipients are nominated through an application process that details their efforts to reduce hunger by addressing its root cause through an impactful and innovative approach. 

DeCarlo, who represented North America and was honored for Manna’s innovative efforts in combating hunger in the county, and the other award winners each received 10,000 euros (more than $12,000) for their projects at the gala attended by 600 people.

For nearly five years, DeCarlo has led Manna, which is Montgomery County’s largest food assistance organization and supports more than 3,500 families each month with a staff that is 61 percent female.   

Initial funding for Manny, a remodeled school bus with a fully functioning kitchen, came from sponsors and DeCarlo says the award money will help to further develop the project. She plans to spend the money on fresh produce that will be purchased from local farms in the county and then used in Manny’s culinary education programs, which teach nutrition skills to schoolchildren and families.

Since its start, Manny has served more than 500 people including 135 families at its pop-up pantry, which distributes fresh produce and food with an extended shelf life to food-insecure families, and 240 other people through community events.

Manny offers educational opportunities to students eligible for free or reduced-price meals at local public elementary schools through a curriculum called Common Threads, created to teach health and wellness skills through cooking and nutrition education. Groups of 15 students are invited into the kitchen-on-wheels, parked outside their school, to take part in the hands-on experience.

“We want them to go home—and we’ve already heard some kids are doing this—and ask their parents to buy them the food that they’ve learned how to prepare and to share that with their family members,” DeCarlo says.

Manny also provides after-school programing for families through a partnership with the University of Maryland Extension (UME), an informal education system within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Manny’s staff has combined UME’s program with its own nutrition education outreach, providing families with access to healthy produce and helping them to develop the skills to use the produce in their own kitchens, inspiring healthy cooking across generations, according to DeCarlo.

She said the success of the Manny project highlights the kind of innovation happening locally that can make a hunger-free county a reality.

“When I first came here, people would say ‘Oh well, you can’t really end hunger,’ and I said, “Well, why not?’ ” DeCarlo said. “Trying to change the mindsets is the biggest challenge, but it’s one of those challenges that I enjoy.”