PROVO — Elder Lamoti Manusete didn't have much growing up in Tonga. He remembers often having plain, old soup for dinner.
On Thursday, the newly ordained missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was happy to help people likely in the same situation his family was in years ago, providing meals to families in need.
"We have a lot of things in this world," Manusete, 18, of West Valley City, said. "A lot of people don't know that there's people out there who don't have anything."
All 1,400 missionaries stationed at the church's Provo Missionary Training Center were given the opportunity to assemble food packets for the Utah Food Bank on Thursday, helping to keep their minds off of missing their families during the Thanksgiving holiday, said MTC President David Martino, of Texas.
"It's a time we all need to give gratitude," he said. "We know that 'To whom much is given, much is required,' and this is a chance for them to put away their own thoughts and concerns and turn their minds to think about how they can help others."
For the past six years, the Florida-based nonprofit Feeding Children Everywhere has partnered with the Church Humanitarian Aid Fund to boost supply at local food pantries throughout the state. The missionaries, who are volunteering their time for service throughout the United States and the world, help to make it happen.
On Thursday, the mostly reverent, but large crowd of young adults donning shiny black nametags filled more than 350,000 specially marked plastic bags with carefully measured puffed brown rice, oatmeal, dried apples and nutmeg.
Each plastic bag has enough food for six child-sized meals, giving them the essential vitamins and minerals, protein and carbohydrates that they need.
The balanced meal — one of four that is available from Feeding Children Everywhere — is key for the organization, which aims to give people the nourishment they need, not necessarily full bellies.
Large groups from various churches, organizations, businesses, and more can fund a meal-packing event and the organization will ship the products and provide supervision to bolster local supply for people in need. Participants are called "hunger heroes."
"Volunteers are so critical to what we do," said Dave Green, founder and CEO at Feeding Children Everywhere. He said the church, through its many functions, is the largest provider of volunteers for his organization and a great partner for their cause.
"We believe the reason hunger exists in America is the cost of living is too high," Green said. "The cost of food has sky-rocketed. Hard-working Americans with jobs can't afford it anymore."
The Florida native, who also experienced food insecurity as a child, makes food that is affordable — the "Apple Pie Oats" packaged by the missionaries on Thursday is about 32 cents per serving, he said. The packaged food, either distributed by food pantries or shipped discreetly to homes across America, is meant to fill the gaps where mealtime sometimes falls to the wayside.
"We want healthy, thriving families," Green said. "We know that when they're stressed about making ends meet and not getting what they need, that's not a good environment."
The full-time missionaries understood that purpose better than most would, as Sharon Eubank, president of LDS Charities, said, "Missionaries are ministers and this is a perfect chance for them to minister to others."
"If I couldn't be with my family today, I'm glad I get the opportunity to serve," said Elder Austin Briles, who is from South Carolina and is heading to Rome next month. "Everyone needs good food."
He said the missionaries he serves with are considered his family now and for the next two years.
Sister Diana Romero, from Peru, said she's never experienced Thanksgiving before. In fact, her time at the MTC is the first she's ever spent in the United States.
"It's amazing. I am so thankful to be able to help one another. It makes me feel really grateful," the Missouri-bound missionary said.
The missionaries began their morning Thursday with a devotional featuring Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf. Their messages each centered on gratitude and thanksgiving.
"Today my heart is filled with thanksgiving," Sister Uchtdorf said. "Not just because today is Thanksgiving Day, but because what you missionaries mean to me. You remind me of the special time in my life when missionaries found my family in Frankfurt, Germany, and blessed our lives forever."
Elder Uchtdorf said, "Acknowledging your blessings is not meant to merely make you feel happy about the place you are in at this moment in life. It is meant as a tool to help you recognize your resources so that you can use them to move onward and upward."
The devotional was broadcast to 13 other missionary training centers around the globe.
Sister Shaylin Carroll said she enjoyed hearing the Uchtdorfs speak to her and the other missionaries. One of her friends converted to the church in high school and, after sharing her testimony with him, she said she has wanted to serve a mission ever since.3 comments on this story
The Boise native is headed to Poland in January.
"I wanted to feel like that all the time," Carroll said. The meal-packing assignment gave her similar feelings. She said it was "heart-warming" to make breakfast available to families and children everywhere.
Carroll is excited to get to Europe and "share the light of Christ with everyone."
"That's what I've been wanting to do ever since I got here," she said. "It makes me happy."
Contributing: Valerie Johnson