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Here’s what it takes to bake almost 10,000 pies for MANNA’s Thanksgiving fundraiser

Volunteers prepare pies during a Pie in the Sky baking event. October 26, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod
As a person who is rarely allowed in the kitchen, I was a bit worried when MANNA invited me out to make a few pies for its annual pie-baking-and-selling fundraiser, Pie in the Sky.

My fears were soon quelled when I learned that the chefs had prepared the batter and pie crusts ahead of time: No pies would be harmed, burnt or just plain inedible because of me.

This fundraiser started back in 1997 as a way to support the Center City-based nonprofit’s mission of preparing and delivering meals to people with life-threatening illnesses, and especially its Thanksgiving meal program. (MANNA stands for Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance.)

Over a few weekends in September, October and November, roughly 400 volunteers make about 9,500 pies to raise about $300,000 each year.

The nonprofit starts its planning for the undertaking in June, said Eric Gantz, MANNA’s director of operations. The team studies trends from years prior to better understand how many pies they’ll need to make for the upcoming fundraiser.

“This is my fourth Pie in the Sky since I’ve been back,” Gantz said, who worked as an executive chef to several restaurants from 2006 to 2015. “I was here several years ago and participated in probably four back in the mid-2000s, but I was just part of the process then. These past four years I’ve been leading the process, the one who’s running the whole event, all the kitchen aspects of it.”

Pie in the Sky volunteers. (Photo by Peak Johnson)

It’s not easy to prepare for one of MANNA’s largest fundraisers of the year. Gantz also orders all supplies, prepares all the recipes for the pies and coordinates all production schedules. He’s usually in the kitchen from start to finish on baking days, which quickly became evident as I put on an apron and hairnet to assist in the day’s routine.

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Luckily, the only thing that needed to be done by myself and the volunteers the day I visited was to fill the pie crusts with batter. I lost Gantz for a moment as I situated myself beside a few volunteers and began unboxing premade crusts, but could see him moving speedily through the kitchen, sometimes entering through what looked to be a huge freezer and other times disappearing behind large machines.

The pies come in six flavors: apple, berry, pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan and the special American Airlines Sky Pie, a caramel chocolate walnut cheesecake inspired by the sponsor.

Gantz describes the process of creating each delicacy like this: “We have to make the batter and then we have to bake the batter, then we have to cool the pie and then we have to decorate the pie and then we have to cool the pie [again], seal the pie and box the pie. So there are a lot of steps involved with that pie, but the pie is awesome.”

The pies are priced at $30, which Gantz understands might sound like a lot, but there is a huge payoff: Buying one feeds a family of four for Thanksgiving dinner.

Pie in the Sky volunteers. (Photo by Peak Johnson)

The days are long, Gantz said, but it’s an important event for MANNA, and the volunteers enjoy coming in to help. This was something that I started to notice myself after spending a few hours in MANNA’s kitchen. The work started to become fun, especially as I got in a rhythm of unboxing pies with the other volunteers.

That day, the Harmelin Media Cares Committee of the Bala Cynwyd-based marketing agency Harmelin Media were busy folding sweet potato boxes for the pies to be placed in. They made the work look easy.

“We have strength in numbers. We have 30 people who go out and and help different organizations, and MANNA is the one. As you can see today, they needed a lot of manpower to help fill boxes for their fundraiser,” said Alison Bolognese, committee chair of the Hermelin Cares Committee. “And they’re a really organized organization so we really like coming here. We feel like our time can be used to really, really wisely and we can help out as much as we can.”

Volunteers are especially essential to making Pie and the Sky happen because the MANNA kitchen “is busy all the time when we’re open,” said Laura Payne, senior manager of marketing and events at MANNA. “Volunteers are here making client meals, so all of the baking for Pie in the Sky is done on off hours, so volunteers along with our kitchen staff or event staff come in at night or come in on the weekends.”

By the time I left the kitchen, the Harmelin committee was already gone for the day and left boxes neatly stacked. MANNA was a few steps closer to helping a few more Philadelphia-area families in need this holiday season.

MANNA’s next pie-baking weekend for volunteers is Nov. 1 through Nov. 4.

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