CARROLLWOOD — The Community Food Pantry began 10 years as a few jars of peanut butter and cans of spaghetti on the pastor’s shelf.
Now, the pantry, operated by the Village Presbyterian Church at 13115 S Village Drive, expects to provide 600,000 meals to people in need this year. In addition, pantry volunteers, who logged more than 18,000 hours of service last year, now are helping with health services and providing toiletries to veterans and the homeless
"We’ve seen amazing growth," said Beth Dhondt, development and grant coordinator for the pantry, who said last year the pantry distributed more than 550,000 meals to almost 10,000 families.
She added: "In 2015-16 we had a 40 percent increase and in 2016-17 was an 80 percent increase. And we do not have a big homeless population in this area.’’
Monica Wilson, the pantry’s director, said many of the clients, who can shop at the pantry once every four weeks, are "working families."
Wilson said the cost of groceries continues to rise and wages have not kept pace with full-time jobs cut to part-time work. In addition, said Dhondt, a swell of residents from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and economically stricken Venezuela, experiencing food shortages, has added to the need.
Ken Shick, the church’s interim pastor, said the food pantry is "part of the mission of Christ in the world. Jesus was about feeding the hungry and this is central to our mission."
Food pantry clients do their own shopping in the two rooms where canned goods, dry goods, frozen meats, refrigerated dairy products, personal care items, fresh vegetables, bakery goods and more are available.
The pantry is in partnership with the food distribution nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay and volunteers pick up from two Publix stores, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Target in the Carrollwood area.
"We have everything that you would find in your grocery," Dhondt said.
The food bank has a $2 million a year budget with no government funding. It operates through financial donations, in-kind donations, grants and public fundraisers such as Denim & Diamonds, set for April 19 at the Carrollwood Country Club. The event will feature Matt Spence, vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, as the speaker.
"This is a way to bring our current supporters and new ones together," Wilson said. "We want people to really understand what is happening."
School service clubs and local businesses have food drives throughout the holiday season and many supply volunteers to work stocking the shelves on Tuesday and Thursdays or distributing the food from noon to 2 p.m. Sundays and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays.
It’s a desire to help others that led Wilson to the food bank in 2010, after it had expanded from the pastor’s office to a few shelves and one refrigerator.
She said she was at the church in the pantry’s very early days setting up Vacation Bible School with her son, then 14. He recognized the mother of someone he knew seeking food.
"He found it impossible that someone in Carrollwood would be hungry," Wilson recalled.
Her son passed away in 2010 after battling cancer, and she decided she "was going to jump right in to help" with later being hired to direct the operation, which continues to expand.
Recently the food pantry held a Spring Health Fair with local businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies offering information and health screenings.
"We are trying to be a full-service provider with the church nurse seeing 48 people and we have a volunteer social worker, too," Shick said.
Contact Lenora Lake at [email protected]