ST. PETERSBURG — Maybe they shouldn't have been surprised.
Organizers were shocked Tuesday when 1,900 people lined up for free food outside Beaming Hope Church — four times more than they had planned to feed.
But many Tampa Bay area food pantry directors and community organizers said the crowd was not surprising.
Hunger is everywhere, they said. It is easily hidden, the hungry forgotten.
"When you're homeless it shows," said Debbi McCarthy, development director for the Tampa Bay division of Feeding America, which sponsored Tuesday's giveaway. "But you can be hungry and be living in a middle-class neighborhood. Who would know? It's invisible."
Since 2009, the year economists say the recession ended, Feeding America's Tampa Bay office has seen demand increase 44 percent. That's 100,000 more people in the Tampa Bay area needing food assistance each year.
More than 14 percent of Florida households don't have a consistent nutritious, well-balanced diet, according to a 2010 report issued by the USDA's Economic Research Service.
The number of Americans living in poverty increased 5.9 percent to 15.3 percent since 2009, according to the U.S. Census. In 2010, Florida's poverty rate was 16.5 percent, census data show.
"A lot of these people have never dealt with these issues before," said Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg.
Most are not homeless. Many do not qualify for food stamps or receive welfare services.
Throngs of the 1,900 who waited under a beating sun for hours to secure a box of basic food items Tuesday drove to the church at 2997 Tyrone Blvd. Some were dressed as if they had just come from work.
This, Walker said, is what the new poor looks like.
"To be willing to wait in line that long, there must be a need," she said. "It's not like they're handing out $100 gift certificates. It's just food."
Unemployment is wreaking havoc on middle-class families, McCarthy said, forcing them to make tough choices: mortgage payment or electricity? Gas for the car or food?
"You go into homes sometimes in gated communities, nice neighborhoods, and you realize the place is empty. That these people are living on a shoestring, just trying to keep a roof over their heads," McCarthy said. "One place people can short themselves is food."
Clearview United Methodist's Food Pantry, at 4515 38th Ave. N in St. Petersburg, has been giving food to the needy for seven years, pantry director Kay Tillinghast said.
When they started, about 50 people showed up monthly to collect food. Last month, Tillinghast said, 870 people were helped.
"The times are tough, and people are looking for a way — any way — to make it," Tillinghast said. "Some providers are struggling to keep up with demand."
Some agencies reported seeing a month to month change.
The Kaye Prox Food Bank in Tampa provided food to 315 families in October. That's about 700 people, organizers said.
They haven't finalized their November count yet, but in the two weeks before Thanksgiving, nearly 200 families came in for food — more than half the number of people from the previous month, said co-director Marilyn Ruggerio.
"The time of year is tough," she said. "People want to provide for their children during the holidays."
Ruggerio added that when kids who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch at school are home for a week, or several, parents have to provide more food than usual.
That's when they realize they can't afford to do it on their own.
Organizers of Tuesday's giveaway hope the amount of people in need will force others to act and address hunger in the Tampa Bay area.
"I hope it's a wake-up call," McCarthy said. "People who you walk by in the street are hungry. People you sit next to on the bus are hungry. It's everywhere."
Contact Marissa Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.