Charities that feed the poor around Tampa Bay say they’ve seen a bump in demand since Hurricane Irma that is continuing into the holidays.
But they also are reporting a spike in donations they are attributing to a neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit in the wake of the storm.
"Donations have been awesome," said Ariel Dewitt, media coordinator for Metropolitan Ministries. "We’ve seen an outpouring from the community that we see every year, but the way the Tampa Bay community has rallied this year after Irma, it just seems the giving has just continued from that."
Metropolitan Ministries has more than 10,000 volunteers and has most slots filled for working at its Holiday Tent this month.
Taryn DeClue, marketing and communications coordinator for Feeding Tampa Bay, said her organization has seen a similar uptick post-Irma. While the group may have had 30 volunteers a day previously, it is now getting close to 100, filling multiple shifts.
"Our shifts have been full almost every day," she said. "People want to come together to help the community in any way they can."
But the organizations have also seen greater needs since Irma.
Metropolitan Ministries typically feeds about 18,000 families in Hillsborough County through its holiday tent in Tampa each holiday season, and an additional 5,500 families in Pinellas and Pasco counties, but it expects to see more because of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Gina Ruiz, director of communications for the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, said that since the hurricane, shelves seem to run out as soon as they are stocked.
"We’re seeing 150 households a day," she said. "That food goes out so quickly. It’s a pretty consistent need. (People had) enough food, but to purchase a week ahead of time, they (didn’t) have the income to do that. If your power was out for a week, you’re spending money on food that has gone bad that you didn’t account for. Especially if you’re low income, you just can’t afford to have a couple days off work."
DeClue said a common misconception is that the food goes toward just the homeless, a population that she said makes up just 5 percent of those fed.
"The biggest collection of individuals is the working poor," she said. "They’re working multiple jobs but can’t make ends meet. Single parents. People who work five jobs a week. All sorts of situations."
More than 700,000 people in the Tampa Bay area lack regular and adequate access to consistent meals, according to statistics from Feeding Tampa Bay. Dewitt said that often the people charities describe as food-insecure don’t fit the classic image of what one might expect.
Some might be couch-surfing or staying with friends because there’s nowhere else to go, or may have lost a job or have an illness adding to expenses, she said.
Nonperishable items and items that haven’t expired are always in need, Ruiz of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic said.
Metropolitan Ministries is still looking for donations, particularly of gravy, boxed deserts, rice, yams, stuffing starches and gift cards, which can be dropped off at its holiday tent at 905 N Governor St. in Tampa. People can also fill online carts with food to be donated through Metropolitan Ministries’ website, metromin.org.
Ruiz said the organization is also always seeking personal hygiene items, such as soaps, deodorants and toothbrushes.
"A lot of people think about this around the holidays, and I understand it," she said. "But people are hungry 365 days a year."
Dewitt said the outpouring of support after Irma has been encouraging.
"Sure, we offer them food and clothing, but at the same time, we’re offering them hope," she said.
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.