BRADENTON -- Students from Manatee, Lakewood Ranch and Southeast high schools are usually bitter rivals when you put them together in a room.
But Saturday, about a half-dozen students from the Key Clubs of each school, along with roughly 35 other volunteers, worked in harmony to package 34,000 meals for hungry Manatee County children.
The effort was put together by the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton and aided by Kiwanis Club of Manatee Sunrise, which has established itself as one of only 90 organizations in the United States with the equipment and know-how to package a nutrient-rich rice and soy casserole created by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Kids Against Hunger.
Although the meal has chicken flavor, it is meatless and vegan-friendly."It's impressive what a lot of people can do at one time," said Dave Bishop, president of the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton, which hosted the 9 a.m. event at its hall on 14th Street West. "Our Foundation helped. We bought a lot of the raw materials. But also our Key Clubs and our volunteers are here."
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The Kiwanis Club of Bradenton donated 30,000 of the 34,000 meals and the remaining 4,000 were donated by Manatee High and St. Joseph's Builder's Club, said Richard Birkholz of Kiwanis Club of Manatee Sunrise.
It seemed like it only took moments for the volunteers to catch on to the system, which involved scoops of rice, soy, a crushed vegetable mixture and a chicken flavoring all weighed and funneled into a plastic bag.
The operation also required someone to seal the bag and someone to stack the finished bags to make 36 bags per box.
Each sealed bag can be opened and the contents added to boiling water to create a tasty meal that feeds six, Bishop said.
"It's pretty good," said Birkholz, who whipped up a batch for the volunteer crew. "It will go to church pantries,
Feeding Empty Little Tummies, Salvation Army and various soup kitchens."
The Manatee High crew, led by its Key Club President, Benjamin Reiss, quickly became as efficient as an auto assembly line.
"It's pretty fun," Reiss said of the work. "This is one of the more fun things we do. And the food tastes infinitely better than the chicken at school. Vegan-friendly is where it's at."
Reiss praised his crew, especially ninth-grader Connor O'Leary.
"We call him Connor Tron because he is very, very quick with his movements on the assembly line," Reiss said.
Josh Fleck, the treasurer of the Manatee High Key Club, raised some eyebrows when he said he liked the sharp smell of the soy.
Others agreed it wasn't too bad but took some getting used to.
Over at Southeast and Lakewood Ranch's assembly line, Chris Komarov, a Southeast junior, was riding herd over his crew.
"Except for some minor inaccuracies, I would say we are a well-oiled machine," said Chris, who loved to tease Southeast senior Wendy Liu, 17, about weighing the mixture correctly.
Wendy took the teasing in the spirit of fun. "This is an amazing project," Wendy said. "It's really easy. It brings everyone together."
Southeast Key Club advisor Carrie Schultz said food packaging is a stellar volunteer activity.
"Everyone's hands are busy," Schultz said. "You can physically see the outcome. When you are just asking people to donate money you don't see the reward right away."
The youngest volunteer was Zachery Berger, age 10, and the oldest was Richard Wagner, age 96.
Zachery is a special young man who would rathervolunteer to help feedhungry children than playvideo games or watch TV,said his father, Richard Berger, who was also volunteering.
"Zachery gets very excited about this," Berger said. "He likes to help other kids. This is what he is all about."