BRANDON — Each month, a box of organic, all-natural snacks arrives at Jessica Ross' door.
She has sampled seaweed chips, giant corn kernels and holiday chocolates. Ross, who lives in Brandon, often takes the box to work and shares it with her co-workers at a food distribution company.
And while she enjoys the snacks and being exposed to new types of foods, she said her favorite part is that with each box she buys, the company that makes the boxes, Love with Food, donates a meal to a hungry child in the United States.
"I think that's the main reason to subscribe, really," Ross said of the monthly snack boxes. "If that wasn't part of the deal, I'm not sure I'd really consider renewing it. You get to try a lot of different foods that you wouldn't be able to find otherwise, but you're also donating to charity."
Since its inception, Love with Food has donated more than 100,000 meals nationally, including 400 to Feeding America Tampa Bay. With a single signup, the monthly subscription model allows people to make regular donations.
And its continual nature helps food banks that often see people donate intermittently in times of natural disasters and catastrophes. Though those events help bring awareness to food banks, hunger is a yearlong, constant problem.
One in four children in Hillsborough County struggles with hunger, according to data collected by Feeding America and the Nielson Co. The data, collected between 2009 and 2011, found that 73,280 children in the county are hunger insecure — meaning their bodies aren't receiving enough nutrition and they often are going without critical meals.
"Hunger is a very real problem here in Florida, but we feel like the hunger message in Tampa Bay is underrepresented," said Debbie McCarthy, director of development for Feeding America Tampa Bay. "There's little conversation about it in the business community and even in the faith community."
That lack of awareness is what spurred Love with Food founder and chief executive officer Aihui (pronounced i-we) Ong to add the donation element to the company in January 2012.
She knew she wanted to help people fall in love with food and, at the same time, share their love through food. Before founding the company, she spent a year traveling the world. And while it was an exciting, adventurous time, it also opened her eyes to the problem of world hunger.
Perhaps, she thought, her idea to help people discover new food and for small companies to reach new clients could also help tackle the hunger problem through donations.
"But then when I started doing a lot of research and looking for an international program to partner with, I realized hunger is really a problem in America, which I didn't know about." Ong said from her Silicon Valley office. "I can't believe I was so ignorant about that."
One in five children in America goes hungry every day. And unlike the skinny, sallow children we see posters of in international campaigns, these children don't match the images that have been seared into the public's mind about what hunger looks like. They still go to school, but they rely on food stamps. They might have food in their homes, but it lacks nutrients — parents choose "Pepsi and pork rinds" over milk and fruit because that's what fits in their budget.
But it's not what nourishes their children.
Last year, Feeding America Tampa Bay distributed 35 million pounds of food to the 10 counties they serve, including Hillsborough. They work with 600 hunger relief agencies to make sure that food reaches the individuals and families who need it most.
But while their numbers and donation levels are impressive — that food equated to 30 million meals — it's only about half of what is needed in the communities.
People are reactive givers, McCarthy said. They feel the urge to donate in times of crisis, such as natural disasters.
"It's harder for people to give to an ongoing problem," McCarthy said. "Every day, people have to eat. It's a tougher sell. It doesn't ever go away."
That's why she said programs such as Love with Food are a good donation option. Subscribers can set up their account for monthly payment, so without hardly thinking about it, they're donating on a continual basis — and receiving a treat in return.
"It requires such minimal effort," Ross said. "I almost sometimes will forget about it and then I get a notice that I have a new box in the mail."
Ross said domestic hunger, especially in Tampa Bay, is more present in her mind now. And she likes knowing that each month, she is making a contribution to help fight the problem.
"It's a very comfortable giving experience for people," McCarthy said. "It allows them to give on a regular basis without consciously thinking about it."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.