ST. PETERSBURG — In the six years that Sharon Gonzalez has been working at the St. Petersburg Dream Center, she cannot remember when the food pantry ever closed.
But for about four weeks this year, the pantry has not had enough food to remain open.
"We operate solely on donations, both food and cash, and at the moment, we're looking at really hard times," she said. "If it's not coming in, we don't have it to put back out. Unfortunately, the number of people coming in keeps growing and growing."
The closed doors of the St. Petersburg Dream Center highlight the ongoing problems with the economy: foreclosures, rising food and fuel costs, and local unemployment.
Shelves in food pantries nationwide sit empty. In Pinellas County, many pantries are dealing with an increasing number of clients.
In the past six months, the number of people coming to the Dream Center for food has doubled or even tripled, Gonzalez said. The pantry went from usually being open three days a week to two days last fall.
In February and March, staffers were averaging 1,200 to 1,300 people during the two days a week until the pantry was forced to close, Gonzalez said. Those clients told her how worried they are. Many "can't save their homes because of lack of money."
"A little old lady said she'd steal cat food since she felt bad stealing a can of tuna from a grocery store," Gonzalez said. "That to me is really sad when the elderly are forced to do things like that because they can't survive. We're living in really bad times, and the poor just get poorer."
When the Dream Center has money, it often buys food from America's Second Harvest, a national organization with an office in Tampa.
Serving 10 counties and almost 400 agencies in Central Florida, Second Harvest in Tampa has faced increases in transportation costs and decreases in philanthropic donations that have been particularly severe in the past six months, said donor relations director Wendy Zella.
"Normally, if I were to walk in our warehouse now, we would still have plenty of food left over from holiday canned drives, but now those are gone," Zella said. "We're lucky for what we do get."
Owen Young, director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic food bank, said often there is food available for the bank to pick up, but gas costs too much for the trip to be worth it. Meanwhile, demand keeps increasing: Young has added at least one pantry to the recipient list every week for a year.
Then again ...
Not all pantries have been affected the same. At the Solid Rock Christian Recovery Center, Pastor Joe Gill said his church hasn't yet experienced the food shortages suffered at the food bank level, though he expects to at some point. In the past year, the pantry closed for about 10 days, but that's not unusual, he said.
"Every time we are running low on food, a source will come in," Gill said. "I really don't know how we would deal with it, because there are a limited number of places to buy food at to distribute to the community. If our sources were to dry up, our food pantry would be without food."
Some pantries have even been thriving. The St. Vincent de Paul Society of south Pinellas has seen a steady flow of food donations, though demand has risen, said executive director Patricia Waltricah.
"We are part blessed by a very generous public," Waltricah said. "I think the public recognizes the work we do in feeding the hungry and homeless and have great empathy for folks in need. We averaged 22,800 meals a month during 2007."
Young said he's not sure why some pantries have been hit worse than others but that the overall problem remains dire.
"Hunger is one thing, but food insecurity is probably the most common thing in the typical middle-income family," Young said.
"When someone goes home for day, the choice is, 'What do I have and is that enough and will that get me through today and tomorrow?' It's not a big stretch to come up with a scenario of someone living paycheck to paycheck."
Dagny Salas can be reached at
email@example.com or (727) 893-8872.