It’s the second Friday in October, but it smells like Thanksgiving at the MANNA headquarters in Spring Garden. Aromas of cinnamon and brown sugar perfume the air as more than 1,000 sweet potato pies make their way to the oven.

MANNA, formally known as Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance, prepares and delivers free meals to people with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and heart disease. Thanksgiving is the Philadelphia nonprofit’s biggest production day, when it delivers piping-hot turkey dinners to 1,300 clients across the region. Pulling it off is no small feat.

Volunteers help decorate pies for MANNA's annual “Pie in the Sky” fundraiser.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Volunteers help decorate pies for MANNA's annual “Pie in the Sky” fundraiser.

But before MANNA’S kitchen staff can even think about cooking Thanksgiving dinner, they have to tackle the Pie in the Sky — a local fund-raising tradition that started out in 1997 with 2,500 pies and has quadrupled in size in the years since.

Annual prep relies on volunteers — 500 of them — to help assemble pie after pie over three weekends in September, October, and early November. After they’re baked and cooled, they’re kept frozen until the week of Thanksgiving, when another round of volunteers-turned-delivery drivers arrive to transport the goods to 50 pickup locations. The 10,000-pie endeavor raises $350,000 a year.

“Every time you volunteer, they’re so humble and make it known that you’re vital to what they’re doing,” said Michele Palumbo of MANNA, volunteering for her 10th year. “You leave feeling really appreciated.”

Stacks of cardboard fill an area of MANNA's headquarters in Spring Garden, awaiting volunteers to transform them into pie boxes. MANNA delivers 10,000 pies for its annual Pie in the Sky fundraiser, and an additional 800 pies to its clients.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Stacks of cardboard fill an area of MANNA's headquarters in Spring Garden, awaiting volunteers to transform them into pie boxes. MANNA delivers 10,000 pies for its annual Pie in the Sky fundraiser, and an additional 800 pies to its clients.

This October weekend was all about sweet potato pie — sandwiched between berry- and apple-centric weekends (not to mention pumpkin, pecan, and American Airlines Sky pie, a caramel- and chocolate-drizzled, walnut-topped cheesecake, on the side). Sitting at a table overlooking chest-high stacks of cardboard, Palumbo was joined by two of her neighbors. They were tasked with the easy yet tedious job of building boxes. The trio caught up on each other’s lives, making jokes as they slapped stickers onto each one.

Steps away, another few dozen volunteers went to work inside MANNA’S 10,000-square-foot commercial kitchen. With hairnets secured and ice cream scoops in hand, they smoothed creamsicle-colored filling into pie shells. The creamy sweet potato puree, all 200 gallons of it, had been made earlier that morning by MANNA staff as they prepped regular client meals like chicken cacciatore with broccoli and tempeh sloppy joe.

Volunteers make pies for annual “Pie in the Sky” fund-raiser held by MANNA last month.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
Volunteers make pies for annual “Pie in the Sky” fund-raiser held by MANNA last month.

Readying the MANNA kitchen for Thanksgiving requires director of operations Eric Gantz to complete something of a tile game, shifting the daily flows of the kitchen’s parts and people. Thanks to years of fine-tuning, the process has become so systematic, Gantz calls it a “slice of cake" (he quickly corrects to “slice of pie”).

“It can get crazy — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I’m starting at 6 a.m. to help deliver pies, am cooking all day, and organizing volunteers in the kitchen until 5 p.m., and then return at 11 p.m. to pull an all-nighter to heat the turkeys in the oven,” said Gantz, who spends roughly 25 hours in action before heading home to his own Thanksgiving feast. “But it’s worth it. There aren’t a ton of jobs where you lay your head down and you feel great about it, and that’s every single day you work here. The thank-you calls from our clients are just heartbreaking.”

For Mangano (left), Justin Freyer (middle), and Michelle Master (right), make pies during “Pie in the Sky.”
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
For Mangano (left), Justin Freyer (middle), and Michelle Master (right), make pies during “Pie in the Sky.”

While actual pie production happens in the fall, Pie in the Sky prep gets underway in June, when Gantz starts sourcing quotes for ingredients. Thanksgiving Day planning follows soon after: By midsummer, while others are daydreaming of ice cream, Gantz is locking in the price for 800 turkeys.

Scheduling MANNA’s 1,000 holiday volunteers happens in August; half will show up on Thanksgiving Day. The other half report for duty up to a week and a half before the big day, to knock out tasks like snapping green beans and portioning salads. If you’re lucky, you might get a spot next to someone like Carson Wentz, seen scattering croutons on salads three years ago. (The Philadelphia Eagles send their rookie players to help every year.)

MANNA will deliver dinners fit for their clients living with serious illnesses in the Greater Philadelphia area.
BAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer
MANNA will deliver dinners fit for their clients living with serious illnesses in the Greater Philadelphia area.

It’s showtime on Thanksgiving Day, when several-hour volunteer shifts kick off at 5 a.m. While the nonprofit’s staff does most of the cooking, volunteers help organize everything into delivery packages. Assembly lines are formed to portion out hot items, including sliced turkey, mashed sweet potatoes, and green beans. Preportioned cold items like coleslaw, cranberry sauce, and corn bread are bagged up separately. MANNA clients also receive a bread basket, pumpkin loaf, and apple pie (the same kind that Pie in the Sky volunteers prepare).

As they work to get everything out the door by 11:30 a.m., a couple of hundred volunteer delivery drivers hit the road, distributing meals across the region, from South Jersey to Chester County.

“I don’t know what our Thanksgiving would be without this,” said Gerry Lipski, who’ll arrive with his husband at 6 a.m. this year for their 26th Thanksgiving Day volunteer shift. “This is our holiday now, and we’ve made some of our best friends through it.

“The most fundamental things you need in life are food and love, and that’s what MANNA gives to people.”

Like turkey and gravy, volunteering has become a Thanksgiving tradition for many families, one that feels right in line with the meaning of the holiday. And for MANNA staff, it’s an all-hands-on-deck requirement.

“When I took this job and learned I’d be working the holiday, I wasn’t thrilled — but I was so touched my first year that I cried my eyes out. It’s just an incredible example of people coming together on a day of thanks and actually giving back,” said Laura Payne, MANNA’S senior manager of marketing and events.

Payne notes that the experience also enables their clients to give back to their family, friends, and/or neighbors. While regular MANNA meals are portioned for one, the Thanksgiving feast is designed to feed four.

“It empowers them to give back to those who might help take care of them,” Payne said.