Pantries work to fight food insecurity

Gina Norris, of the Village of Country Club Hills, checks the expiration dates as she sorts through donations before they are put on the shelves at Beyond the Walls Food Pantry in Fruitland Park.

Every community is home to people who struggle with hunger. Close to home is no different. More than 130,000 residents of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties experience food insecurity, or lack of access to enough food for a healthy life, according to Feeding America’s 2019 Map the Meal Gap report. Of those people, almost 30,000 are children. That boils down to 1 in 7 people overall and 1 in 4 children not knowing at times where their next meal will come from. The Feeding America network is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization working to connect people with food. Although federal nutrition programs are in place to assist, they don’t reach everyone in need.

That’s where local food pantries step in to fill the gap.

But help is always needed. Whether it’s food, volunteers or both, one thing is certain: every food pantry in the area is in need.

There is a Feeding America food bank that touches every county in the country. For this area, it’s Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which provides food to nearly all 89 food banks in the surrounding counties. However, those deliveries leave an estimated $72,293,000 in meal gap costs over the course of one year.

“We get a big shipment on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month from Second Harvest,” said Colleen Brooks, of Beyond the Walls Food Pantry in Fruitland Park. “By Wednesday or Thursday, our shelves can get pretty empty, so I spread things out so the shelves don’t look so bare.”

Of the 500 food pantries that receive Second Harvest distributions in Central Florida, Beyond the Walls is one of only three that allows personal shopping so those who have applied and qualified can come in and choose which items they’d like.

“Everyone is so appreciative, they’re just so happy that we’re helping,” said Gina Norris, a volunteer and Village of Country Club Hills resident. “Sometimes we have extra bread or fresh produce and we will tell them to take as much as they’d like, but they won’t take more than they need, even when we try to give more. It seems as if they want to make sure that there is enough for everyone.”

Even though there is the occasional abundance, Norris pointed out that it comes in waves.

“One week we’ll have a ton of peanut butter, another week we’ll have none,” Norris said. “Right now, it’s cereal that we are running low on, but we just need everything. It’s hard. You want to give people more, but you have to have enough to go around.”

Throughout the area, the need is growing.

“A few years ago, we were helping about 300 families per month, now we’re at 500,” Brooks said.

Just around the corner at Community United Methodist Church in Fruitland Park, the need is very much the same.

While Second Harvest deliveries and church donations meet most of it, the food pantry is spending about $5,000 a month to be able to provide meals to 110 families. Because the pantry isn’t part of the church’s budget, most of that money comes from donations.

“A lot of people in the greater Villages area come together to make this happen,” said John Tiedemann, a volunteer from the Village of Belvedere.

“The shortage of foods is constant and not just this time of year,” said Steve Brunner, one of the managers of the Grace Tabernacle Food Pantry in Wildwood. “Most of our clients are retired and living on social security, and many are seniors that are raising their grandchildren. We serve disabled and unemployed clients. We serve large families living on one or two minimum wage salaries. We don’t ask why they need, we give because they ask and we pray for them if they ask for that, too.”

The same stories are echoed across the area.

Four days a week, the Leesburg Food Bank also is attempting to do a lot with just a little.

“We’re going through a shortage right now,” said Brenda Duff, the food bank’s warehouse manager.. “This time of year, a lot of the pantries run short.”

Duff said in addition to the average of 35 families the food bank helps each day, volunteers also pack backpacks with food to help 240 students at six local schools get through the weekend until they get back to free meals that are provided at school. Without the backpacks, those children would go without.

“We rely mostly on public donations with the exception of one $15,000 grant from Publix for our backpack program,” she said.

Although the supply typically runs thinner than the need, the Leesburg Food Bank is dedicated to ensuring they help all who need it.

“We find a way,” Duff said. “We won’t say no.”

The Christian Food Pantry, a ministry of North Lake Presbyterian Church, currently is seeing a drought in the weeks before holiday giving picks up.

“We can always use food,” said Carrol Neal, director of the pantry in Lady Lake. “Typically donations do increase about this time of year, but we haven’t seen anything yet.”

Christian Food Pantry, like many other pantries, already is taking donations for Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets they provide to local families in need.

“We could really use donations of things like stuffing, cranberry sauce and macaroni and cheese,” said Neal, of the Village of Mallory Square. “This may be the only holiday meal they get with their families.”

Staff writer Monique Meeks can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5387, or monique.meeks@thevillagesmedia.com.