More than 1,200 people of all ages gathered in the New Canaan High School cafeteria over the weekend to prepare thousands of meals.

But the food was not for them. Nor was it for a gala event or a fancy buffet.

The 280,000 meals they packaged between Saturday and Sunday are on their way to feed starving children in more than 70 different countries.

The fifth annual food packaging event was hosted by the high school's Pura Vida Club, which has been working with the nonprofit organization Feed My Starving Children to help pack formulated meals to send to hungry kids around the world.

Over the past five years, the event has more than doubled the number of participants and packed meals, according to New Canaan resident Sharon Knechtle, who founded the nonprofit Pura Vida for Children in 2005. Her son founded the club while a sophomore at NCHS in 2007 to partner with the organization. Since then, both groups have been working together to raise awareness about children who have been hungry, orphaned or sex trafficked.

When Knechtle started researching the food-packing event, which Feed My Starving Children organizes in multiple venues throughout the year, she learned that the organization required a minimum of 500 volunteers to pack at least 100,000 meals at each event.

"When I first threw that out to the kids and even to some of the moms, they were like, `How are we ever going to get 500 volunteers to come?' " Knechtle said. "But we did. And each year we've grown a little bit."

The first year the event took place in New Canaan, which followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake, more than 500 volunteers packed about 107,000 meals, Knechtle said.

On Saturday, just six hours after the event started, there already were 115,000 meals.

The volunteers were grouped into two-hour shifts by up to 200 at a time.

Each person took a different role, such as packaging, weighing, labeling and sealing.

The meal, known as "MannaPack," includes rice, dehydrated vegetables, chicken powder flavoring and soy flour. The formula was designed with the input of scientists from major food companies to feed malnourished and starving children.

The cost of each meal pouch is 22 cents, which includes the ingredients, non-volunteer labor and transportation.

Pura Vida Club member Catherine Granito, a 16-year-old sophomore at NCHS, said the event keeps growing because it's "like a domino effect," when more and more people hear about it each year. She noted that several student athletes, including the high school's lacrosse and football teams, volunteered this year.

Granito, who's on the girls' lacrosse team herself, said she would like to visit a country where hunger is an issue to help children in person.

"It would be a great experience seeing something other than New Canaan, especially after packing all these boxes," she said. "Right now you just see pictures of the kids you're helping, but when you're there, you're like, `this child is alive because we're helping them.'"

Peter Pak, a team leader with Feed My Starving Children, said the organization partners with other groups who then follow up with the families who receive the meals.

"They want to make sure they're not just a drop and run. `We're going to stick with this community until things turn around for them,' " Pak said.

The nearly 300,000 meals that were packaged in New Canaan over the weekend will feed 770 families for a year.

Anthony Kasper, another team leader with Feed My Starving Children, told volunteers the organization is committed to ensuring the hungriest kids are helped.

"We want to make sure the food is going where it needs to go," he told the crowd before an afternoon shift on Saturday. "So when you guys are packing today, know with confidence that your food is going to the greatest need at the present time."

Some of the countries that receive the meals are Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Philippines, as well as a number in Africa.;

203-330-6582: @olivnelson