After two hours of telling tales of tragedy turned to hope, Mark Crea asked himself out loud,”Do I have the greatest job in the world?”
Reflexively he responded, “Yes, I do. There’s a tough side to this business, for sure, but I have seen miracles so many times.”
In his nine years as CEO of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Feed My Starving Children, Crea has acquired a wealth of stories on the job. Stories of despair, desperation and death.
But there are just as many stories of revival, courage and, yes, miracles, among the malnourished communities FMSC helps feed in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.
“Their stories are, for us, one of the most powerful ways to tell what we do,” he added.
One of Crea’s most memorable stories takes place in a village in the El Salvador mountains. “To see a young woman with four kids, husband dead, who’s just moved in with her parents who live in this stick-and-mud hut and they have built an addition for their daughter and four grandkids … and this addition is half the size of my office. This is their entire house.
“We go and see this with our distribution partner there, who’s bringing our food, as well as vaccinations, basic medical care and education to this village. Our partner is a group of Amazon women − honest to God,” he recalled, still astonished. “It’s a doctor, a nurse and a health worker. These women spend six out of seven days in their Jeep in the jungle going back to the same villages in a circle every three to four weeks.”
This was in the Santa Ana region, where the malnourishment rate among children was 55 percent, close to the rate in Haiti, the world’s poorest country.
“This mother has an absolute emotionless expression. She’s watching her four children slowly starve to death. This is the first time we’re in there, and our partners are in there, and we’re giving her food for her children. … This woman has a look on her face that says, “This is my lot in life. I’m here to watch my children die one by one.’
“What does that do to you?” he wondered.
“And six months later we come back and here’s this woman and her kids, and they’re healthy. Despite the heat, the kids are running around like tornadoes. And grandma’s there cooking and this woman has this big smile on her face and she gives me a big hug. Her kids are now in school. And her whole world is turned around.”
Crea emphasizes that addressing hunger is what FMSC does best: “Food is our foundation. Our food not only physically changes a person, but it emotionally and spiritually changes their entire world.”
Potato powder, a core ingredient of FMSC’s MannaPacks. (Photo by Mark Brown)
Because of the food’s ability to transform the health of its recipients, FMSC leaders agreed “MannaPacks” was a fitting name for the packets of food it ships to 70 countries across the globe. The name is an homage to the biblical manna, miracle bread Jesus provided his hungry followers in the wilderness.
The MannaPacks are available in three vitamin- and mineral-enriched formulas. The MannaPack rice meal was developed collaboratively by Cargill, Pillsbury and General Mills food scientists, and is comprised of rice, textured soy protein and dehydrated vegetables, and 20 vitamins and minerals. Both potato formulas were developed by a nutritionist in Chicago. Potato-D was designed to help manage rehabilitation from diarrhea, “a death sentence to children in Third World countries,” Crea noted; and Potato-W, for weaning infants, ages 7 to 12 months, off of breast milk. Each meal costs 22 cents.
The packs are assembled solely by volunteers at each of the organization’s seven sites: three each in Minnesota and Illinois and one in Arizona, and through MobilePack events held across the country. This year 800,000 volunteers will pack 190 million meals. Both individuals and large groups may sign up to volunteer online for any of the daily, two- hour shifts held six days a week at each location.
“Putting a box of food in a mom’s hands is one of the most powerful experiences for me, because nothing is quite the same experience as a mom looking at you and saying, ‘God bless you for saving my babies.’ Even though, I didn’t save her babies. It’s all the volunteers out there,” Crea said.
“I’ve had moms say, ‘I have never had more than two days’ worth of food in my entire life … and you have just given me a month’s worth. The missionary on the ground has told me I’m going to get that every month for the next year.’ It all of a sudden changes their whole world concept and way of thinking. Now they can say, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have to worry that I won’t have food tomorrow, or the next day. Or next week. So what should I think about?’ Maybe it’s ‘I think I’d like my kids to go to school, actually.’ Things that we take for granted because we don’t have to think about how we’re going to eat tonight.”
A faith commitment
In 2003 the Minnesota-based hunger-relief nonprofit rededicated its mission. After a decade of downplaying its Christian roots in an attempt to gain more support from secular funders, it again embraced its faith-based focus. It led an extensive search for a new CEO, which resulted in the appointment of Crea, a Catholic who had spent the previous eight years as director of sales, marketing and fundraising for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Since its rededication FMSC has grown by 62 percent annually, increasing its yearly meals shipped from 3 million in 2003 to 163 million in 2012.
Although Crea acknowledged that FMSC’s achievements over the past nine years are “not too common” among relief nonprofits, he hesitated to take credit for the organization’s mammoth growth, which also includes building its annual budget of $670,000 when he started to $48 million today.
A volunteer seals up a MannaPack. (Photo by Mark Brown)
“People ask me what my ideas were, how did I do it? And I tell them, ‘It wasn’t me,’ because I was able to see the Lord blessing the organization once we said, ‘OK Lord, we’re yours again. We’re putting you front and center. This is how we’re going to honor you. And we’re going to work hard,’” he said.
For Crea, the key to FMSC’s success is a sound business plan working in tandem with “God’s plan.” For this reason, every pallet of MannaPacks is prayed over before it leaves a packing site and again before it leaves port for its final destination – many of which are risky and dangerous, such as Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan and others.
“The dirty little secret in the relief world is this, ‘How much of your stuff really gets there?’” he whispered. Crea’s explanation is always, ‘I could not ship 750 million meals (the amount FMSC has shipped in its entire history) to Cleveland and have a 99.6 percent success rate. Without God’s protection, how do we explain that number?”
A miracle in Haiti
One among many instances when Crea felt God’s presence was in mid-September 2004, when Hurricane Jeanne, a category-three hurricane that killed more than 3,000 Haitians and displaced 300,000, hit Port-au- Prince. Hurricane Ivan, which grew to a category five, also had been pummeling the region since the beginning of the month. Amidst the tragedy, Crea believes a miracle occurred in the city’s destroyed port.
The story began in June 2004, two months before Jeanne, a time when the already precarious stability of the country had come undone by a civil war that saw then- president Jean-Bertrand Aristide deposed. Markets closed and people starved, as the new government could not meet their sur- vival needs.
Haiti had been receiving 500,000 FMSC meals per year for the past decade, but now needed a lot more, and fast.
Feed My Starving Children shipped 163 million meals in 2012. (Photo by Mark Brown)
Although shipping more meals to Haiti that summer wasn’t in their business plan or budget, Crea and his team decided to try and raise enough money – and find enough volunteers – to provide an additional 142,000 meals.
What happened next surpassed their expectations. By early August, FMSC donors and volunteers had packed and paid for not 142,000 meals, but 370,000. Yet this wasn’t the miracle Crea had in mind.
“Now Haiti’s a crazy place, but we’ve used a shipper consistently through the years to get food [successfully] into Haiti. We call him up and tell him, ‘Send us two containers. We’re ready to go,” Crea instructed. A week goes by. No containers. Then two weeks. Then three. Still no containers. Remember, it takes three weeks for a shipment to reach Haiti.
Crea called the shipper again and demanded to know the where-abouts of his empty shipping containers. Crea became livid. “They tell me, ‘There’s no extra-tall containers in the Minneapolis yard, but we found two on the west coast and we’re railing them in.’”
Crea’s shouted into the phone, “We don’t use extra-tall containers! You guys have been our shipping company for years. You know that. We use standard containers. I checked with the yard and there’s 200 in Minneapolis. Send them to us, for gosh sakes!”
The saga didn’t end there. “So now it’s the end of August before these empty containers show up,” Crea recalled, with a tinge of irritation even after nine years. “I’m mad as heck. Our partners are running out of food, and we promised them this stuff. We have to get this food down there.
“It’s the end of August. We pray over the containers and finally ship them off. What happened a couple weeks later? Something called Hurricane Jeanne, which decimated the port. … So if we would have sent the containers when we thought they should’ve gone, they would’ve been in the port (and likely destroyed) when the hurricane hit … at a time when Haiti was going to need our food more than ever.
“You look at this and say, ‘OK, Lord. I understand who’s in charge. I understand who’s protecting the food. I can’t tell you how many times things like that have happened with our food,” he said.
A ‘good, strong, Catholic childhood’
Crea is the middle child of a “very religious, good, strong, Catholic St. Paul family,” he said. He credits his parents for passing on a strong work ethic to him and his four siblings: “My dad worked really hard his whole life – six to seven days a week at Snelling Avenue Liquors,” which Crea’s parents owned. “He worked 70 hours a week just providing for the family,” he noted.
Crea worked at least 20 hours a week beginning his freshman year in high school. His first job was at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, where he moved up the ranks from dishwasher to cook to waiter. He worked at a couple of local hospitals throughout high school and college fulltime during summers “and as much as I could the rest of the time,” he said. “This is just how we were.”
A business and economics major at St. Thomas, Crea interned at the Hazelden Foundation his senior year, and said because of that experience he will always have a soft spot for interns and immersing them into the real world. Hazelden hired him fulltime upon graduation, and he remained there for 17 years. He credits the foundation for promoting “a really strong culture of why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you do it,” a value he instills in FMSC.
His capacity for hard work came into play at the beginning of his tenure at FMSC. At the time, the organization had only seven staff members, two of whom were full time, and shipped 3 million meals per year from one site. This meant Crea had to step in to do much of the heavy lifting himself – often forklifting pallets of rice into the warehouse before volunteers arrived for their shifts.
“Before I’d get off the phone with a donor the rice truck would show up, so I’d run out to the warehouse and jump on the forklift, unload the truck, and then if the team leader didn’t show up at night I would help conduct the packing session. When the walls needed painting, we did it. Part of that is still true today,” he said.
Volunteers package MannaPacks at the Feed My Starving Children headquarters and warehouse in Coon Rapids. (Photo by Mark Brown)
Saving one child at a time
Crea has borne witness to the spectrum of human emotion – from the darkest levels of despair to miraculous testaments of survival: FMSC partners who have lost their lives distributing MannaPacks in high-risk countries; an 8-year-old El Salvadoran boy who, at 19 pounds weighed as much as a 10-month-old American baby, reached a healthy weight after six months on FMSC’s feeding program; a Haitian woman who stumbled across an FMSC missionary after selling her two oldest boys into slavery for $150 as a last-ditch effort to feed her three youngest children, who were starving. (Missionaries tried unsuccessfully to find and buy back her sons. The woman received practical job skills and monthly stocks of MannaPacks so she’d never have to make the same tragic choice.)
“Some of that can drive you a little crazy,” he admitted.
The best advice he ever received was from a long-time missionary on Crea’s first trip to Haiti in 2004. It has helped him stay focused on his mission in spite of the suffering he sees. He was commiserating with his friend one hot night, sharing his stories of the children he’d seen dying in orphanages. No food available, there was simply nothing there for them, “not even a Tylenol,” Crea said.
“He could tell I was really distressed, so he told me, ‘Mark, every child you have seen will die one at a time. Save them one at a time. If you try to save the world, you will fail, and you will go crazy.”
Crea took his advice to heart.
By 2014, FMSC’s three-year strategic plan calls for it to double in size again and distribute 235 million meals per year. It’s a lofty goal, Crea admitted, but he’s used to seeing miracles.
Read more from St. Thomas magazine