Hometown Heroes: Mike Manning dishes out servings of food and camaraderie

  • Mike Manning stands in the kitchen at the United Church of Penacook. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor Staff
Published: 5/8/2022 8:01:45 PM

Mike Manning was making his daily commute home from work down Merrimack Street in Penacook in 2015 when he saw a sign that gave him an inkling: An inkling to give back.

Outside the United Church of Penacook, the sign read “Free Meals,” referring to the food that the Open Door Community Kitchen would prepare three days a week to help needy individuals in the community.

Manning, a 29-year resident of the village, thought that it was time to reciprocate the love that the community had given to him for decades.

“I got to a point in my life where I had some free time and I said ‘you know, it’s time to give back,’ ” Manning said.

It wasn’t until he entered the church that day that he realized the kitchen was going to be a large part of his life going forward.

“I stopped in and I talk to my now co-chairman, Art, whose been doing it a lot longer than I had, but he’s trying to retire so I have really taken on a lot of responsibility from him,” he said. “So I talked to him and he goes, ‘Oh, we would love to have you,’ and before I knew it, I was co-chair.”

Now, in 2022, the kitchen is its own non-profit, separate from the church, and they provide takeout meals every Monday and Wednesday for all people that want one. Manning now coordinates and helps cook 5 of the 7 meals per month, serving about 30 people on average each meal, as the help has severely diminished since the pandemic struck.

“With COVID, we lost a lot of people, not to COVID, but because of it,” he said. “Those helpers have been missed and I’ve been kind of jerry-rigging it to keep it running with only seven (volunteers).”

Manning has been a food broker for years, and says that his experience in the food industry has helped with the management of food purchases. The kitchen operates on a yearly budget of between $4,000-$5,000, which all comes via donations, and the price of the meals cooked per year have to fall under that number.

“It has been tough, especially with ingredient issues,” he said. “Our staples are pretty much chicken meals, pork, hamburg, all that stuff has probably doubled in price.”

The kitchen also gets limited funding from the state that they use to help diminish the cost of meals, often putting it towards pasta and grain dishes.

On most Mondays and Wednesdays, Manning will wake up early to get his regular work done, so he can start preparing the meals by 2:30 p.m. and eventually start giving them out by 4:30 p.m., helping put a smile on locals faces. Since there is a day in between meal preparation days, he likes to provide citizens and families with an extra meal to last them to the next day.

The 60-year-old has cherished his relationships with those that help volunteer at the kitchen, as well as the regulars that stop in for a bite to eat, and deeply misses the face-to-face serving that he did for nearly five years.

“Before COVID, we would do meals in the church hall,” he said. “People will pick their certain tables and God forbid you sit in their seat. It was always the same people would sit at the tables and they had their little cliques and everybody would hang for an hour and they would talk, and it would be set up more for camaraderie and we don’t turn anyone away.”

Manning often spends time at the kitchen on the weekends when meals aren’t being prepped, trying to make sure it’ll run smoothly during the week. On his docket is cleaning out the fridge, monitoring and rotating ingredients, and making sure everything on the menu calendar for the week is ready. He chooses to spend extra time at the kitchen because it gives him a sense of purpose.

“Every morning I get up and I get I’m blessed that I have two arms, two legs,” he said. “My brains work and you know, I think, ‘it’s gonna be a good day.’ I just love being able to get back to the community.”

Manning doesn’t see an end in sight for his volunteerism, as it helps him connect to his Concord-area community, for which he has been apart of since 1988.

“I find it extremely fulfilling because you get up, you go to work and do your job, but I know that it’s almost like an escapism,” Manning said. “I find it’s great because I know those people need us. They want us there and they appreciate us. And it feels good to be able to give back especially when you know if you’ve been so lucky in your life.”

He hopes to get back to serving meals in person once the number of volunteers rises, and to continue his yearly events, one of which being the meal they put on at the Pitman Place in Concord, helping feed those searching for housing opportunities in Concord’s low and, moderate income, resident community.

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