Community steps up to help local families in need

Tiffany Sevick holds her 4-year-old son, Boston, at their home in Fort McCoy. Sevick, who lost her husband two years ago, has been thankful for the support she and her four children have received from the Help Agency of the Forest food pantry in Silver Springs.

Tiffany Sevick’s life is nothing like she thought it would be when she moved to Florida from Texas about four years ago. The Fort McCoy resident never expected her husband passing away in a car crash and being left alone with four children, ranging in age from 4 to 13. “It’s been hard, you know?” she remarked as tears welled in her eyes. “I have family in the area, but I don’t have the friend support system that I used to have. We have some things, but I’m on a limited income, and so toward the end of the month, I need help, especially with groceries, especially when the kids are home from school.” Summertime is supposed to be a time of fun and relaxation, but for many like Sevick, it can be a time when parents worry about how to feed their children as they are no longer being fed twice a day at school.

The mass need

When children are not in school, many in the tri-county area worry about how they are going to feed their children the nutritious food they need, especially when the family has a low income.

A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic created nationwide school closures and stay-at-home orders. This left many families with children having to come up with a plan.

According to savethechildren.org, COVID-19 has hit the poorest families the hardest. They are about 15 times more likely to struggle with hunger as the wealthiest families.

Tracy Geoghegan, director of publications and branding of Save The Children, said the pandemic has left millions of families financially strapped and stretched parents to the limit as they juggle work and helping children with remote learning.

“Close to 1 in 5 U.S. families reported they did not have enough food to eat in December 2020,” she said. “There are an estimated 17 million hungry children now in America — 6 million more than before the pandemic.”

And the need is local

When parents need a helping hand to feed their children, many turn to local schools and food pantries for help.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that, in the tri-county area, 19.8% of children in Lake County reported being hungry, 22.5% of children in Sumter County reported being hungry and 23.1% of children in Marion County reported being hungry.

“Children from poor families who relied on meals served at school as part of the National School Nutrition Program face especially daunting obstacles,” said Angela White-Jones, lecturer and research administration academic program coordinator at the University of Central Florida, in a news release.

Local schools throughout the area offer free healthy meals and snacks to children and teens 18 years old and younger in low-income areas while school is not in session. This program, the Summer Food Service Program, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and makes sure these children are able to get the resources they need.

Sumter County Schools

This year, Sumter County School District will operate similarly to how it did last year as a Summer Break Spot.

The district will have grab-and-go meals served at five school locations in Sumter County beginning June 14 at Wildwood Elementary School and June 15 for the other four locations in Sumter County.

Pickup is between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and both breakfast and lunch will be served. The program will run through July 29.

In addition to pickup at the schools, W. Eric Suber, school support services director, said there also will be nine remote locations, including three Wildwood locations where meals will be delivered by school bus.

Suber said he was excited with some of the changes to the feeding program from last year.

For more information about times and locations for the program, call the school at 352-793-2315.

Lake County Schools

Lake County schools will continue food distribution over the summer as it has done in the past, said Communications director Sherri Owens.

“In the past, the district has offered breakfast and lunches at around 25 locations across the school district, including Fruitland Park Elementary School and Villages Elementary School of Lady Lake,” she said. “We haven’t finalized the plans for summer yet, but we hope to have them in the next coming weeks. We will be having some type of program, though, because there is a need.”

For more information about the program, call 352-253-6522.

Marion County Public Schools

Marion County Public Schools will continue to offer its Summer Feeding Program, but plans for this summer still are being worked out, said Kevin Christian, director of public relations of Marion County Public Schools.

“Our summer school options are bigger than they’ve been in the last decade, so we’ll have far more students on campus than usual this summer,” he said. “Our Summer Feeding Program is an immense operation that begins once school ends. Generally, it operates about 20 to 25 main locations and several dozen satellite locations throughout the community.”

In addition to the Summer Feeding Program, there are also volunteer-based backpack programs children can benefit from.

“Community members typically pack nonperishable food items in the backpacks during the week and drop them off at schools on Fridays,” he said.

For more information, contact Kevin Christian at 352-671-7555.

The importance of nutrition

Kristen Curtis, population health supervisor and registered dietitian for The Villages Health, said it’s very important when selecting foods for children that nutrient density take precedence.

“Children need good quality protein to help support their growth,” she said. “Sure, children can get protein from meat, but plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds should also be included in addition to fruits and veggies.”

Curtis said whole grains and dairy should also be something children get throughout the day because it helps support the growth of healthy teeth and bones.

When parents have exhausted the resources schools offer or need a helping hand to feed their families dinner, many turn to the food pantries.

Local Food Pantries Step In

The Christian Food Pantry of Lady Lake, a ministry of North Lake Presbyterian Church, packs 444 snack packs a month for children attending Villages Elementary School of Lady Lake, said Carrol Neal, director of the food pantry.

“Volunteers used to pack the snack packs at the church in the fellowship hall once a month,” said Neal, of the Village of Mallory Square. “But with COVID, everything changed. Now the children have backpacks, and we use ziplock bags and banana boxes to transport the bags to the schools.”

The schools take the boxes and deliver them to homerooms, where teachers and volunteers privately put the bags in the backpacks of the students who normally receive them, she explained.

Volunteer Pat Harrington, of the Village De La Vista, said she got involved with the food pantry because a food drive captured her attention.

“After learning more about the need, I told them to call me if they ever needed me,” she said. “We always worry about children, especially during breaks from school because we never know if they are going to have enough to eat.”

Society of St. Vincent De Paul Conference

Volunteers with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Conference food pantry, a ministry of St. Timothy Catholic Church in The Villages, get with staff of Fruitland Park Elementary School to figure out what items are needed for snack packs. Volunteers then set aside items on a separate shelf at the pantry to take to the school.

“Snack packs are filled with a variety of healthy foods meant to encourage brain growth and energy levels in children,” said Joe Mulé, manager of the food pantry. “They have cereal bars, applesauce, pudding packs, juice boxes, fruit snacks, peanut butter and jelly

and several other items.”

Wildwood Soup Kitchen

The Wildwood Soup Kitchen helps out schools in the Wildwood area by creating and packing snack packs for students. The kitchen recently came together with the Deloris Isham-Presley 320 Inc., a nonprofit organization working to help children from underserved low-income households, to pack backpacks full of nutritious snacks for students.

“We pack snack packs for the local schoolchildren to make sure they have plenty of healthy options on the weekends and during breaks from school,” said Barb McManus, president of the Wildwood Soup Kitchen and a Village of St. Charles resident. “It helps to provide nutritious meals for these students who may otherwise go hungry.”

Within the backpacks, a student can find bottled water, nonperishable whole milk, organic apple juice, snacks and oatmeal items.,

“That’s just for breakfast,” McManus added. “We also give them canned or prepacked meat like tuna, granola bars, pudding, fruit, and peanut butter.”

Felicia Shelton, executive director of Delorise Isham Presley 320 Inc., said the mission of the nonprofit is to help support children living in underserved communities including Lake and Sumter counties, by catering to their needs.

The Help Agency of The Forest

Pastor Dave Houck, founder of the Help Agency of The Forest or SoZo Kids, said his food pantry was booming during COVID-19.

“We were getting truck donations sometimes twice a week,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, we just want to make sure people who need food are able to get it.”

When Houck checks in with Tiffany Sevick, he will ask if she needs anything. If she does, he will load up his truck and deliver it to her on her home property.

“Dave is so helpful,” Sevick said. “It’s not just a box of groceries. He really does go out of his way to make sure you have the things you need.”

Recently, Sevick visited the pantry and was greeted with smiles from volunteers.

“They love you all the time,” she said. “You can call them with any need, and they will come. After the passing of my husband and joining the Salt Life Church and getting to know Pastor Dave, it’s been a very eye-opening experience.”

An entirely unique experience

Sevick said she does her best for her kids, but sometimes it can be difficult.

“I always tell people it’s really sad that my husband had to die and a pandemic had to happen to teach me how to be more appreciative,” she said. “I live on a fixed income, yet I have the liberty to be home with my children. (Crappy) things happen and life isn’t always what it’s made out to be, but knowing you have someone you can rely on, that can help feed your children because you need help, it changes everything, and I want my kids to be proud of me.”

When Sevick came to the pantry, volunteers loaded her vehicle with boxes of food. The boxes contained vegetables, fruits, meat, pasta, bread and treats for her children.

Her 4-year-old twins, Boston and Bristle, helped carry in groceries and set them on the table. Boston then sat down and opened a container of watermelon. He gave a piece to his sister and left the other two pieces on the table.

“Those are for my other two siblings,” he said, referring to his 8-year-old sister, Eden, and his 13-year-old sister, Abbiegal, as he patted them before taking a bite of his slice.

The importance of summer programs

“If a child goes without food or doesn’t get the right types of food, malnutrition and developmental delays could occur,” Curtis said. “Children need to fuel their bodies to support optimal growth, development and learning. Summer feeding programs are a fantastic way to provide children in need with nutritious meals and snacks when school isn’t in session, because some families find it difficult to provide nutritious meals and snacks for their growing family.”

Curtis said the pandemic gave her a unique insight to options like the summer feeding program.

“A few months ago, my son had to quarantine,” she said. “The Villages Charter School provided him with breakfast, lunch, snacks and beverages for each day he was out of school. As a mother and registered dietitian, I was delighted to see most of the items provided included whole-grain snacks, fresh fruits and veggies, applesauce, low-fat milk and string cheese.”

Other groups making a difference

Pastor Houck’s nonprofit isn’t the only group that has been helping children in need. The Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake also stepped up to help numerous families in areas where needs have increased.

In April 2020, the club began its Adopt-A-Family service project, a project that helps families who have been identified by community leaders and school officials as needing assistance with essential items including food.

“Most of the families are identified through schools and Sidney Brock, pastor of Heritage Community Church in Fruitland Park,” said Cleve Tinsley, a member of the club and a Village of Calumet Grove resident. “After they have been identified, counselors send me their names and contact information. I then call them and ask what items they need to get them through the next coming weeks.”

Tinsley said other club members will go shopping based off the lists he gives them and then deliver the items to the residents’ homes.

The progress

Glendia Brown, another member of the club, has been helping with deliveries, as the club continues the service project to help families in need.

“We are doing our best to make sure they get everything they need, while still bringing comfort during these trying times,” said Brown, of Oxford. “Knowing that we are helping the community, helping to feed children especially during the summer when they are home, it gives us a feeling of accomplishment. We wouldn’t be able to help as many without the help of the community.”

Even though the project started about a year ago, the club made the decision to extend it to continue helping these families.

“It’s something that has been working really well,” Tinsley said. “We are going to continue doing it for as long as we can.”

For more information, visit ladylakekiwanis.org.

Accepting the help

Sevick said without the help of Houck and the members of Salt Life Church, she is not sure what she would have done.

“They just open their arms and accept you as you are,” she said. “Anytime you need anything, you just let them know and they are there. Whether it be helping you with food for your children, feeding you while you wait for a tire to be fixed or even helping with food and things for the holidays, they just step up to the plate. My kids get breakfast and lunch from the school, but Houck makes sure everyone in the house has food — he even packs little bags of candy or a sweet treat even for me.”

Sevick said she has never experienced a group of people so helpful, who also treat her kids as if they were their own.

“The volunteers give my twins stuffed animals,” she said. “It’s just crazy to know that there are people out there willing to help you with whatever the need is. It’s not just about the food they bring, it’s also about all the kindness and love they share, and that just amazes me.”

Senior writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.