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Food bank chief keeps thousands fed

GASSAWAY, W.Va. -- Carla Nardella would love to cook meals for those less fortunate. But in the past 28 years, without stirring a pot, she's fed hundreds of thousands of hungry people in West Virginia.

Nardella is the executive director of Mountaineer Food Bank, and she and her staff serve more than 600 programs in the state.

"That's 260,000 individuals per month," Nardella said. The nonprofit organization distributed 70.5 million pounds of food from January 2000 to December 2011. Those numbers have since skyrocketed.

"We processed 9.5 million pounds last year," Nardella said.

At a recent training session for organizations new to the food bank, Nardella acknowledged she would love to work in a feeding kitchen, preparing and serving food directly to those in need.

"I'll do that someday," she said, laughing. Until that day, Nardella and the staff at Mountaineer Food Bank will continue to serve 48 counties in the state. (The Huntington Food Bank serves the other seven.) Under her watch, Nardella has seen the donations struggle to keep up with the demand.

"It used to be that I would go into that warehouse and it would be full. But now, there's more demand than there are donations," she said. "What happens now, we're moving stuff through here so fast. I was here last night until 9 boxing up bakery items, and they are on a truck this morning.

"You have to work on the fly all the time. I just don't have that much here to box up."

Nardella is from Gassaway, and 29 years ago she saw an ad in the newspaper for an office manager.

"It said to mail your résumé to a search committee, and I had to look for the address in Gassaway. I thought, 'Who is this company?' I had donated stuff to the food bank, but I had no idea how it worked."

Working as office manager prepared her to take on the director's role, as she created poundage reports and payroll. Her degree from Glenville State College gave her a background in business. Her varied jobs -- working in restaurants, grocery stores and doing home health visits for the state -- all help her in her position today.

"It was kind of like, I did this job, and I did this job, and I did this job, and they all came together here at Mountaineer Food Bank. When I did home health visits for the state, I saw all of these hungry kids. I saw firsthand the suffering in the families. Once, at the Braxton County health clinic, a mother and her six children came in for the children's well-child physicals. All were malnourished. The mom's income was $2 too much to get food stamps.

"There were no church pantries, nothing like today. The fact is there wasn't anything in place at that time. This system wasn't in place."

In 1981, Mountaineer Food Bank was created through the efforts of an anti-hunger coalition looking for ways to feed more people. They began creating relationships throughout the state, and became charter members of the national rural food delivery system Feeding America.

Today, Mountaineer Food Bank is the state's largest supplier of food and personal products for people in need of emergency assistance, working within a sophisticated network of feeding programs and donors.

The warehouse in Gassaway has 19,800 cubic feet of dry storage, 39,000 cubic feet of freezer space, and 15,600 cubic feet of refrigerated space. They work with soup kitchens, food pantries, day-care centers, shelters, after-school programs, backpack programs and senior programs.

The job keeps Nardella tied to the Gassaway location, but she would love to visit donors and onsite providers. She spoke of a generous orchard owner in the Eastern Panhandle who recently donated a truckload of apples to the food bank.

"I would love to see his face. I speak to him on the phone, but I just need to jump on one of our trucks and visit. I just want to say 'thank you' in person."

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com.


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