Food pantries stock up to meet summer need

Tiara Hutchinson, of Camp SoZo, works in the food pantry at the Help Agency in Silver Springs. The Help Agency serves families who are living in poverty in the Ocala National Forest.

Area food pantries are thriving on community support right now — but many still may wake up hungry again tomorrow. With summer almost here, area food pantries used to bracing for a slower donation season already have felt increased pressure to serve, and residents and businesses have been trying to make sure they have enough to meet the need. Food pantries have been pushed front and center of the national consciousness with schools remaining closed and millions without work. Between March 15 and May 13,

about 1.9 million Floridians filed unemployment claims, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Since March, the

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 30 million people — or 1 in 5 workers — have filed nationwide.

Before the pandemic, more than 2.8 million people in Florida lacked access to enough food, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This includes 14,160 people in Sumter County, 41,170 in Lake and 51,310 in Marion.

During the summer, government agencies and local food pantries really begin to feel a strain on what they are able to provide with so many families back at home and not getting meals from places such as schools, said Pastor David Houck, founder and CEO of Help Agency, which serves those living in poverty in the Ocala National Forest. Although school districts provide summer food programs, many families need more.

Summertime also usually sees more need as some of the pantries’ most frequent donors, Villagers, often head north.

This is not a usual summer, though, said Don Huggins, director of Wildwood Food Pantry. The pantry has seen about a 15% to 20% increase in people using their services, which usually sees a steady need throughout the year.

Huggins said it’s the “COVID situation and the unemployment” at the root of the uptick.

“I can only think that it’s still going to get worse before it gets better,” Huggins said. “But, we’re here. We’re available.”

Meeting the Need

To combat some of the negative effects of the coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) announced on April 29 extensions for federal waivers to assist Floridians participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

DCF has received nearly 1 million public assistance applications since March 2, and peak call volume more than doubled.

Local food pantries have been trying to cover the needs that have fallen through the cracks.

The need for community donations has definitely increased since March, said Thom Horning, food pantry coordinator at St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church Our Mother of Mercy Food Pantry in Wildwood.

“Since we haven’t been able to purchase food due to grocery store limits, we have had to rely completely on donated food,” said Horning, a Village of Poinciana resident. “We set up a situation at the church where anybody could drop off food any morning, Monday through Friday.”

In the beginning of March, Horning said the pantry was averaging about 1,500 pounds of donated food each week. In April, that jumped up to more than 8,000 pounds per week.

As the number of households that are served by the pantry has jumped from 320 to 380, parishioners and neighborhoods “have really stepped up,” Horning said.

“We have been able to really meet the needs of our clients and been able to give them a little more than what they were getting before,” he said.

In the Ocala National Forest, some families in need are receiving more than they were before, too. Help Agency has been serving hot meals on days it’s open to help those families who might not be getting the food they were receiving elsewhere.

The Wildwood Food Pantry has been thankful to see only a minor increase in needs from the community, said Huggins, of the Village of Glenbrook. And, it has seen a much larger increase in donations.

“Right now, everybody is giving because we’re seeing the national coverage on food pantries,” said Huggins, of the Village of Glenbrook. “Normally, donations fall off probably 50% in the summer. We’ve got a few holes here and there for now — I’ve got enough peanut butter to last me until the end of the world but not enough jelly to go with it.”

Local Response

Local residents and businesses have been trying to ensure pantries have enough for everyone.

Denise Jensen, of the Village of Fenney, spent four weeks collecting food donations. Canned goods, breakfast, lunch and dinner items, snacks and juices have been put in the boxes in Jensen’s front and back yards.

Everybody wanted to help, said Jensen, who split the donations between the Help Agency and Wildwood Food Pantry — including checks for $1,174 to each.

On May 8, four Greek-American Social Club members dedicated their homes as drop-off locations to collect food and other supplies to donate to Wildwood Food Pantry.

The club usually donates scholarships, but club President Vivian Badami said they decided the need for food was too great.

The drive brought in three car loads full of goods such as food, household items, baby supplies and personal toiletries.

“Although we cannot meet together as a club, participating together to help others in need unites us,” said Badami, of the Village of Mallory Square. “With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting many families, both inside and outside the community, we hoped to gather as much food as possible to take to the food pantry.”

Wildwood Food Pantry also has been half of the receiving end of donations gathered from St. Mark The Evangelist Catholic Church. The Knights of Columbus at St. Mark’s delivered food from their annual drive for Lent to Wildwood Food Pantry and St. Theresa Catholic Church in Belleview in mid-April.

The collection also included $2,206. But because the collection was cut short when churches closed at the end of March and beginning of April, Philip Babel, chair of the 40-Day Lenten Food Drive at St. Mark’s, said congregation members have been collecting donations in their neighborhoods.

“It was very generous,” said Babel, of the Village of Woodbury. “We collected another $1,000, so we’re going to split it between Wildwood and St. Theresa’s.”

The Knights are still collecting some money and hope to deliver it by the end of May.

Local businesses also are giving back. For example, Bill Bryan dealerships in Leesburg have partnered with Beyond the Walls Food Pantry in Fruitland Park. They are accepting nonperishable food, which can be dropped off at any of their dealerships, and Bill Bryan will match the food amount before delivering it to the pantry.

Beyond the Walls also received a $750 grant Tuesday from State Farm Insurance in Wildwood to assist in filling the pantry.

And on Friday, George Nahas, owner and general manager of George Nahas Chevrolet in Wildwood, along with Evelyn Cardenas, president of Central Florida Auto Dealers Association, presented Huggins with a check for $5,000.

“We like to get involved and give back to the community,” said Nahas. “The food pantries help to feed the communities.”

The money, Huggins said, will be divided between the Wildwood Soup Kitchen and the Wildwood Food Pantry. The Wildwood Soup Kitchen currently is closed, but when they reopen, Huggins said they will need help.

“We need the funds to continue on a long-term basis as the money fills in the gaps from the donations,” Huggins said.

Even though many needs are satiated for now, food pantry shelves never stay full for long.

Area pantry directors said items needed include canned meat, soups, fruits and vegetables, as well as boxed goods such as macaroni and cheese, cereal, peanut butter, pasta and jars of sauce.

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or Staff writer Andrea Davis contributed to this report.