Benita Brown was stunned. The food co-op that lent a bit of elasticity to her budget as she prepared daily meals for her 87-year-old mother, ailing 67-year-old brother and 57-year-old out-of-work younger brother was closing.
"Ouch!" she exclaimed on hearing news that Share Florida Food Network in Tampa was ending its 20-year-old program that offered fresh produce and frozen meats at a fraction of supermarket prices.
Across the state, others were just as surprised and concerned.
Pastor Donald Smith of Winter Haven Church of the Nazarene said the program had been popular at his church. Volunteers picked up the food and distributed it in the fellowship hall one Saturday a month, he said.
"It's going to create some hardship," he said.
At First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Tampa, the congregation has been participating in the program for a decade or more, said the Rev. Anthony W. Greene.
"It has helped a lot of our seniors in the church and in the community, also quite a few of our low-income members," he said. "It's a great deal."
In recent years, though, the savings were less as participation declined and discount grocers increased their share of the market.
"Participation peaked in the late '90s," said Robert Rose, interim executive director of Cornerstone Family Ministries, the organization that ran Share.
"If you look around, the food industry has radically changed. The deals that we give aren't quite as good as we gave in the '90s," he said "As we see Share gradually shrinking in scale, we've got to say it was a great run. It was awesome. We touched a lot of people, but sometimes, good things have to come to an end."
The last distributions were made from Share's Ybor City warehouse the week before Christmas. At 250 host sites across the state, the majority of them churches, many participants were just learning that the program they depended on was shutting down.
The announcement had been sudden.
"That is our main concern right now," Rose said, noting that some Share programs across the country had shut down without notice. "What we wanted to do was to gracefully exit, make sure our customers got all their product they paid for and the vendors had been paid in full."
The program employed four full-time staffers in Tampa and one in Miami, along with eight part-time employees across the state. Some staffers are being absorbed into other Cornerstone programs, while others will lose their jobs.
"It was a very agonizing decision," Rose said.
The food co-op, which was begun with a grant from TECO Energy and initially required participants to do volunteer work, was completely dependent on sales, Rose said.
Cornerstone Family Ministries, previously Tampa United Methodist Centers, traces its origins to two women, Eliza Wolff and Rosa Valdez, who started separate programs to help Hispanic immigrants in Tampa during the late 1800s. These days the ministry runs a child care center in West Tampa and manages the federal free and reduced food program for child care centers in five counties.
In an e-mail announcing the program's end, the organization suggested that its customers turn to discount grocery stores.
"Aldi, Save-A-Lot and Wal-Mart are all great places to shop, and we have found their prices to be very competitive to ours. We also recommend that you refer your participants to Angel Food Family Ministries, a comparable program to Share," the organization said.
According to its website, angelfoodministries.com, Angel Food Ministries is a nonprofit, nondenominational organization begun in Georgia in 1994. It has distribution sites in 45 states, including several in the Tampa Bay area.
Last weekend, though, those who had grown to depend on Share or had volunteered expressed sadness at the program's demise. Mark King and his children began volunteering in 1998, when one of its host sites was the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. Saturday he worked at Daystar Life Center with Becky and Ted Joyal, their son, Daniel, and his girlfriend, Cat Tridas, filling bags with items ranging from celery stalks to sweet potatoes to seasoned chicken breasts.
That morning Daisy Foster, 82, arrived on her motorized scooter from a nearby apartment. She's on a fixed income, she said. "And I'm disabled, and I can't go out and do any big-time shopping."
At Lutheran Apartments, which had the largest number of participants using the Daystar site, Bob Ruth and fellow volunteer Darlene Taccati put a lot of energy into the co-op. Ruth wrote letters to residents, signed them up for the program and often delivered the food to their doors. "I spent about 30 hours a month on the Share program," he said.
Marian Nadon, 83, Share coordinator at St. Paul Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, had noticed the program's decline. "In the beginning, we used to have 40 to 45 people or so and then it dwindled down to 25," she said. "The past two months, in particular, we only had about 13."
The final food distribution day at the Tampa warehouse was bittersweet.
"It was kind of a family," Rose said. "We have volunteers that have been there for the entire time. On one hand, it was sad. They also recognized that things had changed. The volunteers were loving up on the staff, hugs and pats and Christmas gifts. It was a joyful and tearful way of saying thank you and call it done."