Groups step up for local food pantries

Barbara Tiedemann, of the Village of Belvedere, collects food from shelves to pack into bags at the Community United Methodist Church food pantry in Fruitland Park.

When local groups heard food pantries needed an extra hand to feed the community, they came up with a plan. They held multiple food drives and rallied neighbors to donate, their efforts playing a key role in helping food pantries give families the staples they needed to make it through spring break. When children are home, they rely on what they have, but some parents with low incomes aren’t able to provide meals during the day. Many children receive free meals at school, but that isn’t always an option during spring break. That’s where food pantries step in. Under normal circumstances, most local pantries don’t see a rise in need until around summertime, when snowbirds have flown the coop and there’s fewer donors and volunteers. With the pandemic, more people need help because they aren’t working or because finances have changed so the shelves at the pantries start to empty, said Jack Nettis Jr., director of social services with St. Theresa Catholic Church food pantry and soup kitchen in Belleview,

This year, many food pantries worried they wouldn’t have enough food to keep the shelves stocked.

“We heard and saw firsthand some of the need the pantries had, especially St. Theresa in Belleview and Hope Ministries Food Pantry in Bushnell,” said Gay Ratcliff-Seamens, Evening Rotary Club of The Villages president. “Our hearts went out to them and we decided to have a food drive to help them out.”

They weren’t the only ones, and the result was a landslide of food and donations.

Responding to the Need

All three Rotary Clubs of The Villages banded together for a drive recently. The groups raised more than 4,000 pounds of food and over $1,300. The food and money was split between pantries that included, but weren’t limited to, Hope Lutheran Church-Lake Weir Campus food pantry in Summerfield, St. Theresa Catholic Church in Belleview, Hope Ministries in Bushnell, LovExtension, and Community United Methodist Church Food Pantry in Fruitland Park.

The Villages Tesla Car Club also made an appearance, donating about 350 pounds of food and about $400.  

Club members were happy to donate, said club President Angelia Link.

“We know the pantries are in need and that they play a large role throughout the entire tri-county,” she said.

Ratcliff-Semens didn’t anticipate the success of the drive, but was thrilled.

“People have been so generous,” the Village of Belle Aire resident said. “Every little bit we bring in is a big help. The need at the local food panties is still very strong and so every bit we bring in goes right back out to the community and those in need.”

The Rotary Clubs weren’t the only ones who held a drive to lend a hand.

In the Village of St. James, Diana Hunt, pulled together a drive with her neighbors. While the neighbor group, known as the Loopies, can’t socialize as much as they did before because of the pandemic, they were still able to hold their ice cream social.

As neighbors brought up bags of donations, they were handed a serving of ice cream, a kind of “mini reward,” Hunt said.

Together, they gathered more than 1,300 pounds of food, which went to the Wildwood Food Pantry.

“Even though the day we had our drive was cold and rainy, we still made an effort and are extremely proud of ourselves,” said Hunt, of the Village of St. James.

Food Pantries Response

When vehicles started to arrive and drop off food, Nettis started to get excited.

 “Every time our pantry starts to run low, someone has a food drive or drops off a donation and it really helps out,” he said. “There’s so many people in need, especially those affected by the pandemic or who have children home from school, and we want to make sure we are able to help out as much as possible.”

By the end of the drive, over 2,800 pounds of food had been collected for St. Theresa Catholic Church food pantry .

Anita Dillman, director of Hope Lutheran Church-Lake Weir Campus food pantry, was also excited to receive donations.

“We are so grateful for the response of the community,” the Village of Country Club Hills resident said. “The community’s been helping and are still helping us to provide food and diapers to families coming to us. One person was even kind enough to donate size 5 diapers, and we are always in need of that size to help with a handicapped child.”

It wasn’t the first time the Evening Rotary Club has lent a hand, and they always seem to know when they need help, Dillman said.

The need is continuous, as the pantry adds new clients every week.

“We are always available to help out,” she said. “We love working with our clients and the local groups, but are especially pleased when our clients find themselves in better positions and no longer need us.”

Over 1,000 pounds of food was collected and donated to the pantry during the drive.

The Noon Rotary Club of The Villages played a huge role in the needs of LovExtension, a nonprofit organization that works with disabled and elderly residents throughout Lake County.

“While they may not be a food pantry, we know they still help deliver meals to those in need and we wanted to make a contribution to them,” said Randy Bayliss, acting president of the Noon Rotary Club.

Linda Krupski, director of LovExtension, said she was pleased with the drive.

“Being at the drive with the club was a great opportunity,” she said. “We got a lot of food donations and saw firsthand the club in action. It touches my heart they thought of us, especially during this time with the virus.”

John Tiedemann, of the Village of Belvedere and coordinator for the United Community Methodist Church food pantry, was surprised when asked if he would like a portion of food collected during the drives.

“We get a truck from Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida in Orlando every other week,” he said. “So it surprised me when we received an extra abundance from the food drives. We needed it, but I was surprised at how much they gave us.”

There’s such a need, as many people are still out of work and need an extra hand, Bayliss said.

 “It’s great we, as a community, can help by making sure no one is going hungry,” he said. “Many probably wouldn’t survive as well as they do without the help of the pantries, and it’s our job to serve the community.”

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