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Food banks and their partners see the need continue to climb

People wearing red t-shirts that say "Second Harvest" load boxes and bags into vehicles that pass by in a line
courtesy of
/
Victory House
Victory House volunteers load boxes of food -- supplied by Second Harvest, Farm Share, Publix and others -- into vehicles that come to their location every other Saturday

Every other Saturday, a line of cars stretches across the grounds of the Shady Grove Number One Primitive Baptist Church in east Leon County. They’re there for the church’s biweekly food distribution. Last month the line was 150 cars, and it grows by about 10 households with each distribution. The need isn’t going away.

“It is amazing to see the need, but even more to be in a position to meet the need, to do something about it.”

LaNorris McFadden is the senior pastor at Shady Grove. He’s known as Pastor Mac. He majored in social science at Florida State University.

“With some of our partners during all this, we did a needs assessment, and we put food, gas, utilities, help with rent -- and shockingly, food was the number-one need,” he said.

That doesn’t surprise Monique Ellsworth, the CEO of Second Harvest of the Big Bend. She says it’s not uncommon for the food bank to get calls or meet people…

“...where we hear about mom skipping her meals so that her children don’t have to, grandparents skipping their meals so that their grandchildren don’t have to,” Ellsworth said. “And so what we look to do as a food bank, with the partners across our community, is to stand in the gap so that families don’t have to make food the item that they give up to make ends meet throughout the month.”  

Shady Grove is one of those partners. It’s nearly 143 years old and has about 350 members. Its food program began as the Harvest Time Food Bank Ministry, in which church members would leave bags of canned food on people’s doorsteps. Then in 2017, the church founded Victory House as its 501c3 arm and reached out to Second Harvest and Farm Share for help.

“Through Second Harvest, we’re also one of the crisis centers, so we have to keep certain amounts of food stored here so that if someone calls 211 and they’re in this area and they need food, we’re one of the places they come to receive that food. Especially during those storms, if people were displaced,” said Pastor Mac.

Hurricanes are also a major concern at Feeding Florida, which coordinates the 12 food banks -- like Second Harvest of the Big Bend -- that cover the state’s 67 counties. Executive Director Robin Safley says they’re providing support to people displaced or damaged by Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. And then there’s inflation, which not only affects the individual households served…

“...but it also affects our food banks’ ability to purchase food as well as distribution because of gas prices,” said Safley. “It’s being pushed from both sides. We have more clients to deal with, but we also have higher costs at dealing with them.”

In fact, there are problems up and down the chain. Donor fatigue. Loss of volunteers due to Covid-19. Above all, poverty. Second Harvest of the Big Bend serves 11 counties, mostly rural ones, and will gain five more on January 1. Here’s Ellsworth:

“What we find is that the number of people who are living at or below the poverty line -- even if we just look at Leon County, which people oftentimes think of as being the most wealthy -- it’s still over half of the population of Leon County is living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Pastor Mac says at the start of the pandemic there were so many cars -- roughly 500 -- that sheriff’s deputies would have to direct the traffic backed up from Highway 90. Normally, Victory House has enough acreage that the line doesn’t extend off its property.

The good news is that much of the food is healthy and fresh. Safley says about 35-40 percent of Feeding Florida’s distribution is fresh produce or fruits. And Shady Grove has a garden ministry and grows vegetables for distribution. Pastor Mac says given the threat of diabetes, the church is very “intentional” about the food it provides.

But Ellsworth says many people cut corners to their detriment.

“And then they do that in a couple of ways. They’re going to eat less food or they’re going to begin purchasing food that costs less money,” she said. “And that usually means that they’re going to forgo more nutritional food and buy food that’s highly processed. Junk food, unfortunately, is far less expensive than nutritious food.”  

The providers are all working overtime and planning ahead. Feeding Florida and Second Harvest are doing nutrition education, to help people get more out of the food they receive.

“...the important role that nutrition plays in the stability of a family and how important that is that the food that we distribute as a network is not only the healthiest and has the best shelf life it can have, right?” said Safley. “But it also needs to be given to that family in the right quantity so that we don’t have waste somewhere else."

Victory House will soon have an in-house pantry called Winner’s Market.

“You know, it restores some dignity, like I’m not in this food drive line, like I’m able to come into this little small grocery store type of a place, pick my own food out, get what I want, what I don’t want,” said Pastor Mac. “But it restores some dignity. Because it takes a lot to come drive through a food bank line…”  

But the food banks and their partners train volunteers to respect the dignity of people who need food.

“That’s just a moment in this family’s life that is not defining who they are,” Ellsworth said. “It’s not highlighting character defects. This is just a tough moment for them. And our responsibility is to be there and stand in that space with them and make sure that they’re not having to eat less or not eat to survive a really difficult time.”

All the food distributions need volunteers, money and support.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.