By Alana Melanson,

FITCHBURG — It’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and about 70 volunteers are furiously packing nonperishable meals with one goal: the annihilation of one of the nation’s top obstacles — childhood hunger.

The men, women and children gathered inside the Wallace Civic Center will package more than 25,000 meals to be delivered to 13 local food pantries and two nonprofit organizations.

Karin Oliveira, director of United Way Community Builders, which organized yesterday’s Hunger Heroes event, said the shelves of food pantries are growing bare, and local food banks are struggling to solicit donations.

“For National Volunteer Week, we wanted to do a project that was meaningful and impactful, so that we could show the power of volunteerism and how you can really show transformative change in our region,” Oliveira said.

The United Way of North Central Massachusetts purchased 20,000 of the macaroni-and-cheese meals from the national hunger-fighting nonprofit Outreach Inc. The rest were purchased through additional donations from volunteers and other donors, Oliveira said.

“We’re packaging mac and cheese today because every kid in America could eat this every night,” said Matthew Martin, regional manager of Outreach Inc.’s Kids Care program. “It’s the least expensive, most nutritious meal.”

He said this macaroni and cheese, which is supplemented with soy protein, contains 21 vitamins and minerals and 11 grams of protein in every serving, making it

about 1,000 times as nutritious as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  It’s also less expensive because it is packaged by volunteers, Martin said, making it possible to feed an average family of five or six for only $1.50. The meals also have a shelf life of two years.

There are an estimated 86,000 hungry people in Worcester County, Martin said, 30,000 of whom are children. Tuesday’s event was the biggest United Way project his organization has ever done in the Northeast region.

Volunteers began setting up at 8:30 a.m., and started packaging around 9. By 10:45, they had packaged 18,000 meals and met the 25,740 goal at about 11:15.

Oliveira said all of the meals would be delivered to the food pantries by noon.

“It’s always good to be able to give back to support the community and those who are less fortunate than yourself,” said Adrienne Edmonds, of Fitchburg.

Angel LeBron, also of Fitchburg, said it was his first time participating in such an event, and it likely won’t be his last. He became involved because his employer, who asked to remain anonymous, asked workers to participate in the community-service project.

“We know there’s a lot of kids in this world that need food,” LeBron said.

Kira Andreucci, 12, of Fitchburg, and Kylee McCumber, 11, of Leominster, have been helping to feed hungry children in their communities through nonprofit organizations they created. Both volunteered Tuesday. Kira’s Karing 4 Kidz and Kylee’s Kare Kits for Kidz both received assistance from Hunger Heroes.

“I love helping other kids, and I think it’d be great to help 20,000 other people,” Kira said.

“I definitely want to do this again. It’s a lot of fun,” Kylee said.

Kira and McCumber Kylee weren’t the only students given the blessing to play hooky from school for a few hours in order to help their communities.

Lucille DaCosta, adviser of Ayer-Shirley Regional High School’s Human Rights Squad, brought six students from the service group to participate.

“We like giving back to the community and to be able to feed a child — that’s a good thing because we don’t know how many kids in America are going hungry,” DaCosta said. “We help other countries. We need to help home first.”

“It feels good helping out and helping families eat,” said Ethan St. Peter, 18, of Ayer, president of the Human Rights Squad.

Food pantries throughout North Central Massachusetts assisted by the Hunger Heroes include Catholic Charities, Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, Gardner Community Action Committee, Gardner Visiting Nurses Association Community Service Pantry, Ginny’s Helping Hand Food Pantry, Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, MOC-Leona E. Fleming Food Pantry, Salvation Army, Spanish American Center, Townsend Ecumenical Food Pantry, Winchendon Community Action Committee and YMCA/Battered Women’s Resources.

Follow Alana Melanson at or on Twitter @alanamelanson.