LAND O'LAKES — These are testing times for Suzie Arb.
Arb is the executive director of the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank, who took over the 17-year-old Land O'Lakes institution last December after stints at the American Diabetes Association and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Suncoast Harvest serves Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties.
She's at the helm of an agency that was reeling this time last year from supplies and staff that seemed to be drying up just as the economic downturn was starting to bite.
There wasn't a certainty at the time that the food bank could have handled the growing ranks of those in need.
"We had a staff shortage," Arb said. "And we had an executive director who got very ill."
The food bank's thrift store, called Clara's Closet, was a symbol of the unintentional neglect as donations piled up unattended on its premises.
"We let it get run down," said Harry Wright, who rejoined the food bank's board of directors last year, after a short period of involvement when it began. "Now we're getting it back up again."
The heat is on: As foreclosures, job losses and gas prices mount, Suncoast Harvest faces a rising tide of demand.
People who work in the food banks and at United Way say they're seeing not just the traditional customer base of homeless people and fixed-income seniors, but more young families with children, working single mothers, working single fathers, workers in retail, hotel and construction industries, and even real estate agents and mortgage brokers.
"We've seen a tremendous increase in the number of people who come to us," Arb said. "Last year, we served 11,500 people and gave out 3-million pounds of food. This year (so far), we've had 17,000 and given out 3.5- to 3.8-million pounds."
On a mission to rejuvenate the agency, Arb closed part of the thrift store, redeployed staff and installed refrigeration in the storage area as a condition that allowed the agency to keep receiving U.S. Department of Agriculture food donations, such as instant mashed potatoes and rice.
The agency used to have seven staff members, but had only one dedicated to the thrift store which keeps revenue coming into the food bank.
"We're at the mercy of donations from the community" for thrift store donations, Arb said. "After Christmas, a lot of people would be 'out with the old, and in with the new,' so we would have tons of donations. But it took a lot of staff time and energy to size and hang it up."
Arb has hired two more staffers and split her total work force roughly evenly between the store and the food bank.
Things are thriving again, to the point where Arb's facing a new worry at the food bank: space. "Our little warehouse is busting at the seams but we don't have the money to expand," she said. "We could add 200,000 square feet at the back."
Arb's hoping that this year's "Bug Jam" will regenerate community fundraising for the agency. That's the annual event planned for November, when lovers of Volkswagen beetles converge for a car show at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.
The Suncoast Harvest Food Bank will run the concession stand and proceeds go to the food bank.
"We always prefer folks do cash contributions, because we can buy at wholesale prices," Arb said. "But if they would like to make contributions in-kind, we do need canned fruit and vegetables, canned meat and peanut butter. We always have an overabundance of snacks, potato products, high-carbohydrate products."
Suncoast Harvest runs five truck distributions across four counties each month, and hands out free food at the agency the third Saturday of every month.
"The need out there is growing," Arb said.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613.