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Food program for St. Petersburg's poor could soon end

ST. PETERSBURG — Standing in the blistering heat in Bartlett Park, Perry Johnson surveyed the line stretching in front of him.

"Why am I here? I'm starving," he said. "Well, almost starving."

Johnson, a 54-year-old father of two, receives a Supplemental Security Income check each month. He stood in line Thursday morning behind mothers and children, homeless men and wheelchair-bound retirees, for a box of groceries that would have to last him the month.

"We'd probably have to eat from Dumpsters if it wasn't for this," he said.

Johnson was not alone. About 180 people came to the park Thursday for the St. Pete Dream Center's monthly food distribution. Volunteers were helping distribute food from two semitrailer trucks from the national charity Feeding America. The trucks carried hundreds of pounds of meat, produce and canned goods.

The center has been hosting distributions for the past seven months, but the help for people like Johnson could end soon.

Plagued by flagging financial support and besieged with demands from around the Tampa Bay area, Feeding America representatives told the Dream Center in July that they likely wouldn't be able to fund another distribution.

Since then, the center has scrambled to find funds to serve the hundreds they say will go hungry without their help. Their food pantry — which typically serves about 40 people — is too small, board member Mario Farias said. And in a year marked by drastic budget cuts, the center can't count on help from the city, either.

"We've done so much with so little for so long — we can't do anything with nothing," Farias said.

He's been asking local businesses and private citizens for donations for the past several weeks.

The center will host at least one more distribution, funded by a private donation from St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse. A distribution costs about $1,500, Farias said.

Still, he said he's confident the distributions will continue.

"It isn't a choice of if anymore, it's a choice of how," he said. "We're going to seek commercial sponsorship and whatever else we have to do."

On Thursday, Farias and a squad of volunteers packed cardboard boxes with meats, produce and pies from Winn-Dixie while attendees — everyone from parents with children to 20-somethings to the homeless — waited.

In line with two friends, Shayna Bennett, 32, said she has eight mouths to feed — she's taken in several of her relatives' children — and not nearly enough money to do so.

"I couldn't feed the kids without this," she said. "Stuff's just not adding up right. I need a little help."

Behind her, Agnes Floyd said she was attending her first charity food distribution. After losing her job and living at a Salvation Army shelter for a month, she's now living with her brother and working part time at an assisted living facility.

Still, it's not enough.

"I've never been in a situation like this before," she said. "It's really hard."

Feeding America representatives say they want to continue the food distributions in St. Petersburg — it's their biggest event in Pinellas County — but need more money.

"We're putting a plea out for contributions," said Rob Greaves, Feeding America's logistics manager. "There were people here hours before we got here. They know this is it."

Thursday's distribution started around 10:45 a.m. By 11:30, volunteers had given out enough to feed 456 people in the area.

Next to the trucks, John and Charlene Sanders helped put ground meat into boxes.

Thursday was Charlene Sanders' 10th volunteer day at a Feeding America distribution.

"The worst part is seeing the hopelessness in the people," she said, passing a box to her husband. "The best part is giving yourself. Everybody's going through something. You forget about your own issues when you're doing this."

Farias, who grew up in St. Petersburg, said the distributions gave him a better perspective on the hungry. "People think of the needy as homeless, bums, vagrants," he said. "Hunger has no boundaries anymore."

Food program for St. Petersburg's poor could soon end 08/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 6:54am]
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