Hungry In North Florida: For Some Counties, Economic Improvements Don’t Translate To Food Security

May 29, 2016

Nearly a quarter of Gadsden County residents don't know where their next meal is coming from. Leon County is close behind with 22 percent of residents classified as "food insecure". That's according a recent report from the group, Feeding America. The organization's study shows hunger is widespread in the Big Bend.

Annie Green is a grandmother, full-time nursing student and part-time worker. Three of her grandchildren live with her, and on a mid-May morning, she’s arrived four hours early to be first in line at a mobile food pantry on Joe Louis Street.

"I come early,” Green says. “It's because that most of the time, they don't always have enough food at the end. And so we get here early so we have a good choice.”

Hunger In North Florida

Miaisha Mitchell at the iGrow urban garden
Credit Tallahassee.com / Miaisha Mitchell, iGrow

Food lines in parts of Florida’s Big Bend region are getting longer says Miaisha Mitchell, a minority health educator who helps run a mobile pantry on Joe Louis Street. She says the need has doubled over the past five or six years.

Last month, the organization Feeding America released a report showing Leon and Gadsden Counties have some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the state. The study shows nearly a quarter of Gadsden County residents are “food insecure,” meaning they don't always know where they'll get their next meal. About 22 percent of Leon County residents fall into the same category. Other North Florida counties are not far behind.

According to Feeding America, more than 107,000 Big Bend residents are food insecure. This comes as overall rates of food insecurity across the rest of the state, fell.

Working While Hungry

Credit Second Harvest of the Big Bend

"A lot of our working families are working two and three jobs,” says Cynthia Douglas. She runs a pantry at her faith-based nonprofit on Peddie Street, as well as sites on Tennessee Street and Capital Circle Southwest that she says draw about 500 people a month.

“They're working more and still making less, because a lot of the larger companies here in Tallahassee are hiring part-timers and the salaries are lower."

"People drive down the street, and they don't realize that two blocks away sits a small community or a neighborhood in poverty that's struggling with a multitude of issues,” says Jim Croteau, interim CEO of Second Harvest of the Big Bend.

"We get here early so we have a good choice."
Hundreds of people arrive for a mobile food distribution site.
Credit Margie Menzel / WFSU News

Croteau says the agency distributes 500,000 pounds of food per month to 50,000 people. But the need is twice that. Organizers say they're seeing more working people on the lines. Kerwin Thomas, who coordinates the mobile distributions for Second Harvest, says he's learned to time one of the sites for people who work during the day.

"If I start too early there, I'll only get 100 families, because people are out, they have jobs. But …they're still food-insecure. So when we do it in the evening or on the weekend, it helps us take care of a larger range of people.”

Agencies Come Together

Increasingly, local organizations are coordinating their services. Robin Safley, executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks, is in talks with the Federally Qualified Health Centers such as Bond Community Health Center and Neighborhood Health Services, about co-locating pantries at their sites.

Credit Margie Menzel / WFSU News

The Leon County School District wants to put a food pantry at Rickards High School, where a health clinic for students and the community, will soon be up and running. The idea is to quickly bring resources to struggling people so they can quickly get back on their feet.

"We can be the convener that then wraps the services around so that individual, in their stressful situation, doesn't have to limp along through our broken entitlement system or our safety net which is so loose that they fall through the cracks,” Safley says.

Hunger a growing issue for the Big Bend

By the time the food pantry opens at 9 a.m., there are 200 people in line. It's a mobile pantry, set up every other Saturday in an unused mall at Tennessee Street and Capital Circle Southwest, where the Harvey's used to be. Dance music blares on a PA.

And while she and Croteau say the community has been generous, they also say they need more help: food, volunteers and cash.

"What I have come to realize is that all of these assets are really, really cool and great. However, what we're missing is social capital --- and that is one of us caring about the other, Safley says. “The food bank is that individual who makes that connection. And when someone knows that at the end of the day that someone cares about them, that's what makes the difference."

*This story was produced as part of a partnership between WFSU and the Tallahassee Democrat. Coverage continues this week on Morning Edition.