NEW PORT RICHEY — When state Sen. Mike Fasano got to the church before 7 a.m. Friday, there was already a line of cars snaking around the building and along Ridge Road. His annual holiday food giveaway wasn't supposed to start until 10 a.m. Hundreds of people were waiting. It had never been like this before.
Fasano spoke to the woman first in line. She was in her 40s and said she had been waiting in the lot since 6 p.m. Thursday.
Fasano was stunned.
"She sat here" all night, he said.
Each car that went through the line got a ham, a box of candy canes, canned goods, juice and potatoes, tomatoes, string beans, squash and okra.
Fasano said one woman with a child in her car cried when she got her food.
"Why are you crying?" he asked.
"Because this will help us," the woman said.
The event had enough food for 500 families.
They ran out in less than three hours. They had to turn away 150 families.
"This is the first year we ran out of food," Fasano said.
Chuck Weidman got the last box of what was left — lemonade — and a $25 Publix gift card, which Fasano handed out to people after the food was gone.
"It's rough," said Weidman, 43, of New Port Richey, who works at 7-Eleven. "I'm living paycheck to paycheck."
Fasano said most recipients in past years were homeless or nearly homeless. This year, he saw many families who, not long ago, were employed.
"This is a perfect example of how families are truly struggling in the Tampa Bay area," Fasano said.
Kenneth and Becky Meyers rode their bicycles 6 miles to the giveaway, held at Redeemer Community Church on Ridge Road in New Port Richey. Becky Meyers, 46, said she worked in marketing until she was laid off three years ago. Her husband is on disability. Nearly two months ago, the water pump broke on their van. It will cost $118 to fix it. They don't have the money. So they've been on foot or bike since then.
"We're broke now," said Kenneth Meyers, 50. "Completely."
"It's been very humbling," Becky Meyers said.
Kenneth Meyers said with the food they got, balanced carefully on their bike baskets, now they can bring food to his daughter's Christmas dinner.
He has hope things will get better.
"They can't stay this way forever," he said. "There is a light up there somewhere.... We've just got to persevere."
Becky Meyers found out she got a part-time job as a clerk at Winn-Dixie. Today is her first day.
"I'm grateful," she said.
Another recipient, 80-year-old Betty Berger, worried about running out of gas while she was in line. The Hudson resident heard about the giveaway Friday morning from a neighbor. She jumped in her car and drove.
"I just went and didn't even look at the gas gauge," she said.
Berger said she lives "way below poverty," relying on meager Social Security checks.
"I make the best of what I got and what I can get," she said.
She got there about 10 a.m. and waited in line for 30 minutes. She was one of the last people to get a full meal.
"I'm really thankful for it," she said, "for everything."
Sorting through the produce she got Friday, she realized there is one more thing she needs:
"I wish I had a recipe for okra," she said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.