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Feed the Bay collection drive gathers 190,000 pounds of food and toiletries

Chris Morris of Bell Shoals Baptist Church, inside a truck at Bell Shoals Road and Bloomingdale Avenue, is all smiles as donations pour in at last Sunday’s Feed the Bay drive.

Rich Shopes | Special to the Times

Chris Morris of Bell Shoals Baptist Church, inside a truck at Bell Shoals Road and Bloomingdale Avenue, is all smiles as donations pour in at last Sunday’s Feed the Bay drive.

BLOOMINGDALE — Spaghetti sauce, canned chili, crackers, bottled juices, peanut butter, ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese. The cardboard boxes and bags were packed floor to ceiling.

By the time the two dozen volunteers shuffled back to their cars at 2:45 p.m. they could allow for a weary smile. The 26-foot U-Haul truck was two-thirds full. Not a bad day's work.

The effort Sunday at a shopping center at Bell Shoals Road and Bloomingdale Avenue was part of Feed the Bay, an annual collection drive for Hillsborough County food banks.

For six hours, volunteers from 38 churches managed 23 dropoff spots outside Publix and Sweetbay supermarkets, yielding 190,000 pounds of food and toiletries.

They wore blue T-shirts emblazoned with a verse from the book of Matthew: "When I was hungry you gave me something to eat."

"I try to live more and more of my life for God, serving other people," said Troy Burger of Valrico, who, with his wife, Molly, packed items into cardboard boxes that volunteers had scrounged throughout the week.

Kevin Wrobel, and his wife, Michelle, wheeled a packed grocery cart toward three canopied tables behind the U-Haul at Bell Shoals and Bloomingdale. With their two sons, Tommy and Jonathan, in tow, the couple made the drive a family affair.

"I think this is the most food I've ever bought in my entire life," Wrobel said, eyeing the cache, which was barely contained by the cart. "Fifteen to 20 boxes of cereal. Tons of canned goods. Family-sized macaroni and cheese. Toothbrushes. Juice. On and on."

The tab for the Wrobels' efforts? $180. All of it for charity.

"We took the grocery list and split it three ways," Wrobel said, motioning to his two sons. "We said, 'You guys get whatever's on your list and we'll get the rest.' "

Chris Morris, 47, a parishioner at Bell Shoals Baptist Church, piled boxes into the truck while his wife, Starling, and daughter, Mackenzie, loaded boxes with food and toiletries.

The family could have been hanging out together, watching the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, catching a spring training game or doing most anything else, but "giving back to the community" seemed to be more fulfilling, said Morris, who also participated in Feed the Bay's four previous collection drives.

"At this very time any one of us could be needing help," he said. "Times are tough. It's a combination of a loss of jobs and the recession. Our pastor urged us to give back for the love of Christ."

Many others who gave said the message at the pulpit had sunk in.

Debbie Weisemann, a spokeswoman for Feed the Bay, said this year's collection yielded 46 percent more than last year's drive and the biggest haul since 2008 when Bay Life Church in Brandon launched Feed the Bay. So far, the drive has amassed 1 million pounds of food, Weisemann said.

"I just think more people have been moved to contribute," she said. "Some people are doing better now and when you've been through a difficult time and you're doing better, you tend to be more generous."

The collection also benefited from having more helping hands. The number of participating churches increased to 38 from 30 churches last year. Publix and Sweetbay pitched in by offering discounts and two-for-one deals.

"A lot of grass roots community people who went shopping for their needs thought of other people's needs as well," Weisemann said.

Carl Falkenbach, who manages the 8,000-square-foot Nativity Outreach Food Bank in Dover, said the need keeps growing, even if the economy seems to be improving.

"We're just as busy. I'm not sure why," he said. "When you listen to everything on the news you'd think that it's leveled off, but it hasn't. We're just as busy."

The food bank is affiliated with Nativity Catholic Church but is nondenominational in its giving. Fifty to 55 food pantries, faith-based and not, across Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties depend on the food bank for donations.

Those pantries got a boost Sunday when 9,155 pounds of food were dropped off at the food bank courtesy of Feed the Bay.

Falkenbach called the donation the food bank's largest ever from a food drive. The food collected Sunday will probably be dispersed within three weeks, he said.

Falkenbach can gauge the economy by looking around the food bank's shelves. Back when the economy was strong, the shelves took longer to empty and the lines at food pantries were shorter. Those lines haven't been short for quite a while, he said.

"We deal a lot with the pantries in the immediate area," Falkenbach said. "They're all saying it's not settling down yet. If the economy is really good, I guess they won't need us as much. For now, we're busy."

Rich Shopes can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Feed the Bay collection drive gathers 190,000 pounds of food and toiletries 03/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 4:30am]
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