Faculty Feature: MANNA feeds the soul

Smith poses with his book in the MANNA kitchen.

Smith poses with his book in the MANNA kitchen.

Photo by Kass Mencher

Food is more than sustenance. For Kenwyn Smith and his fellow First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia parishioners, it turned out to be the means to revive the faith of a troubled congregation and the vehicle by which he—and many others—learned some priceless lessons.

“If I think of all the books that I’ve read and all of the courses I’ve taken, I’d trade them all for the lessons I’ve learned from people with AIDS,” he said.

Smith, a professor of organizational behavior in the School of Social Work, has now written a book describing those lessons, “MANNA In the Wilderness of AIDS: Ten Lessons in Abundance” (Pilgrim Press, 2002).

The book examines the early years of MANNA—the Metropolitan AIDS Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance, the church group’s effort to test their faith by confronting an issue they had been avoiding. MANNA was established to feed people with AIDS, and like the Israelites in the biblical tale, its founders discovered that the resources for dealing with human needs are actually there in abundance. All one has to do is know how to find them.

In Smith’s case, that meant learning how to ask, something he is not good at by his own admission. But ask he did—starting with his Penn colleagues—and he received. MANNA’s first donated restaurant meals came from the Faculty Club kitchen, and its first outside volunteers were recruited at a Human Resources staff meeting.

In his book, Smith recounts that the Faculty Club chef—whose identity, like those of everyone else in the book, is disguised—actually thanked MANNA for asking for his kitchen’s help. It turned out that preparing meals for people with AIDS helped turn around staff morale.

This sort of scenario would be repeated as MANNA grew. “I was overwhelmed by how many people wanted to help,” Smith said. “There’s a deep yearning for people to contribute,” but the consumerist philosophy underlying our society works to stifle that impulse. “We as a society seem to have lost our capacity to think in communitarian terms.”

Conventional economics doesn’t help either, Smith said. “The problem with modern-day economics is that it operates on the scarcity principle. At one time, water was free and you couldn’t make money off of it. Now we’ve polluted it and you can sell a bottle for a buck.”

Smith also shares this view with the men and women who take his Wharton Executive Education classes, and they too have proven receptive. After discussing his views with one class, a student offered him $20 to give to an AIDS orphanage in Tanzania that is the beneficiary of Smith’s royalties on the book. Others followed suit, and by the end of the day, the students in his class had given $1,560 to the orphanage.

“I think people with great riches are looking for something to do with their money other than make more of it,” he said. The challenge, he added, is to make them aware of the options. “Money, like love, doesn’t work unless it remains in circulation.”

Smith left MANNA in 1997 after serving as its board chairman for six and a half years in order to pass the torch on to the next generation. But even though his time there gave him valuable insights in his field of expertise, he said, “I didn’t [join MANNA] because I was an organizational psychologist. I did it because I was a human being.”

Originally published on April 25, 2002