PORT RICHEY — At 5 o'clock in the morning, Paul and Cindy Banky hopped on the No. 21 bus at Bolton Avenue and U.S. 19 in Hudson, embarking on a journey that had them picking up the No. 14 at Ridge and Little roads and finally landing at Faith Baptist Church on Ridge about 6:30 a.m.
There, the Bankys, ages 65 and 63, respectively, joined hundreds of people lined up — most in cars — as they waited for the annual Farm Share Holiday Food Giveaway that was to start at 9 a.m. Dec. 16.
The couple had arrived early, but there were already plenty of people in front of them.
Longtime best friends Maude Howey, 63 and Viola Vaughn, 70, of Port Richey, were first in line, arriving at 7:15 the evening before, after loading pillows and blankets, snacks and their medicine into Howey's 2003 silver Dodge Durango.
"It helps us out a lot," Howey said of the annual holiday event. "We're month-to-month with Social Security."
Jennifer Farren, 39, who works handyman jobs with her husband, was about a dozen cars behind, along with her children: Chase, 9, and Autumn, 3.
"It really gets tight around the holidays. It's slow this time of year because people are busy," said Farren, adding that she had hope for a better 2017. "We've got a new president. A new life."
Joyce Arias, 70, and her husband, Jerry, 67, were number 224 in a stream of cars that wound through a grassy field adjacent to the church. Medical problems brought them here. She has diabetes. He has been hospitalized three times this year due to complications from diverticulitis. The co-pay for his most recent antibiotic was $86.
"Things were never like this before. We were always the ones doing the helping. But with medical bills and his prescriptions, we are out of money for the month. We're broke," Mrs. Arias said. "With Social Security we can't make ends meet. Not even with our food bills. We'll use this for Christmas dinner. And we're extending what we receive to others as well."
A little after 9 a.m., after volunteers gathered for a group photo, a last-minute pep talk from Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano and a prayer led by Assistant Tax Collector Greg Giordano, the line began to move.
"Merry Christmas! ... God Bless!," were the words Fasano doled out as he and about 40 volunteers loaded up car trunks and truck beds with hams, bags of potatoes, fresh and canned vegetables, loaves of bread, candy canes and other items.
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Over the past 22 years, the Farm Share Holiday Food Giveaway has given a boost to many in Pasco.
"That we've helped close to 10,000 families over 22 years is a conservative guess," said Giordano, who with customer relations manager Tim Couet coordinated the 2016 giveaway for Fasano, a former state senator and representative.
"We don't ask people to prove their need," Giordano said. "We trust that if someone says they're hungry we'll give it to them — first come, first served. We don't want them to feel bad or ashamed."
"Hunger is a problem everywhere, and Pasco is no different," Couet said, adding that he and Giordano often field calls from those needing help. "A lot of people just don't have the ability or can't afford to put the food on the table."
This year's giveaway was once again led by Fasano, in partnership with state Rep. Amanda Murphy, state Rep. Richard Corcoran, state Sen. John Legg, state Sen. Jack Latvala, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and Sheriff Chris Nocco.
The annual event is a concerted effort that starts with Farm Share, a charitable organization in South Florida that collects and distributes donations of fruit and vegetables from farmers across the state, as well as from wholesale distributors.
During the last fiscal year, Farm Share distributed more than 40 million pounds of food to 6.5 million households throughout the state, making trips to distribution sites in the Tampa Bay area a few times each month, said Stephen Shelley, Farm Share's chief operating officer.
Additional aid for the local giveaway comes from a cross-section of businesses, schools and nonprofit organizations, Giordano said.
"In the early days, we used to rely on what came on the (Farm Share) truck." Giordano said. "We never knew what we would get. Sometimes it would be all produce. Sometimes there would be blankets or sneakers."
The Volunteer Way Food Bank and students and faculty members from Dayspring Academy in New Port Richey have been longtime supporters, pitching in with food donations and with sorting and distributing the food.
"It's a really great event. It gives people a taste of what people that are better off have," said Dayspring student council president Angela Gluchowski, adding that students filled 45 boxes with nonperishable items through a school-sponsored food drive.
Southgate Publix in New Port Richey gave a discount on items purchased to supplement Farm Share, Giordano said. Monetary donations to buy food, along with supermarket gift cards, came from leftover campaign money from contributing politicians, as well as businesses such as Bear Creek Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Hudson. The management there has donated $1,500 each year for the last four years, said Bear Creek business office manager Donna Pituch, who first pitched the charitable endeavor to her boss, Bret Martin, after watching a news segment about the event.
"It totally touched me," Pituch said. "It's mostly personal for me. I've had to be on both sides of this. I've been in need, and now I am able to give. Sometime you end up in situations through no fault of your own and you need help."
The Sheriff's Office lent a hand directing traffic and cordoning off the area around the church. The Port Richey Lowe's store brought a forklift to help unload the truck.
The goal was to provide a holiday meal for 600 families. They did that and then some. But it wasn't enough.
Volunteers distributing tickets to those in line ran out before 9 a.m., leaving a number of people in the lurch, Fasano said.
"Gosh darn it. I thought we'd be okay. At least we know 600 families will get a ham and bag of potatoes. But many families will get nothing," said Fasano, who did get a handshake and a promise from Farm Share's Shelley that there would be more food coming on an even bigger truck next year.
"Tallahassee and D.C. tell us things are getting better," said Fasano. "But for a lot of people, it isn't getting better."
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While some went without, Paul and Cindy Banky got what they came for.
"This is fresh eats here," said Paul Banky, sporting a toothless grin as he poured a small crate of okra into a large reusable shopping bag to lug back to the bus stop.
"We depend on the food pantries," he said, adding that things got tougher once he became eligible for Medicare. "I lost my food stamp benefits. So that's what feeds us — the food banks in this area. This helps. You survive."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.