Tampa Bay Harvest is hungry for donations to pay its director

Just this year, millions of pounds of food that would have been tossed because it's not pretty enough or fresh enough for paying customers has been redistributed by hundreds of volunteers to some 200 agencies that feed Tampa Bay's hungry.

It's like a miracle that happens every day thanks to Tampa Bay Harvest, a nonprofit that fights hunger and food waste.

But now, the shoestring organization needs a miracle of its own. It has enough money to get through only another month or so. When that goes, so does its only paid employee, executive director Will Carey, who conducts all day-to-day operations from his Brandon home.

"We need about $50,000 a year for administration," said Jay Keyes, a Clearwater resident and president of Tampa Bay Harvest. "Will is our only paid employee and works like 80 hours a week. He's a dynamo. He's on top of everything. He does it all."

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Keyes, 84, is not only president of the Harvest but one of hundreds of volunteers.

One recent day he picked up plastic bags of unsold baked goods from a Publix and dropped them off at the RCS Food Bank in Clearwater. It's been his routine for nearly 20 years.

"The need is tremendous," Keyes said. "These are families with kids. One in six (Americans) is hungry. It's scary. But it's the most rewarding thing one can do."

Inside the RCS Food Bank warehouse, the day-old breads will be added to juices, milk, produce and canned goods to provide three days of meals for Pinellas County's food insecure — about 5,400 individuals a month. Half are children 13 or younger.

The food bank's needs have climbed by 2 to 3 percent a year over the past six years, said director Jerry Coleman.

If the Harvest loses its director, that could have a ripple effect for all food charities, he said.

"Tampa Bay Harvest is one of our biggest providers and certainly the most consistent," Coleman said. "If they were unable to help, we'd really be hurt."

Tampa Bay Harvest has no assets. No bricks. No mortar. The few refrigerated trucks donated to the Harvest are turned over to satellite agencies like RCS so they can share fresh produce and meats with smaller food providers.

"We don't have money for gas or insurance," Keyes said. "What grant money we do get has to go to food or to build our gardens, not administration. And the need for food is so great, we've got to spend 100 percent of our time looking for it, not doing fundraisers."

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Carey, 61, began volunteering with Tampa Bay Harvest in 1994; he became executive director in 2005. In his former life, he was a chef concerned about the amount of food restaurants threw away.

Most of his focus now is on Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but operations are beginning to spill over into Polk and Pasco counties too.

His days are spent managing volunteers, the needs of hundreds of recipient agencies, and donations of nearly 4 million pounds of food a year from restaurants, groceries, mini-marts and school cafeterias.

Carey can turn $20,000 in grant money into $70,000 worth of nourishment. He can set up food drives. He can refurbish a broken-down truck and turn it over to a partnering organization. When he can't do it himself, he'll find someone who can.

"We find a way to utilize everyone and everything," Carey said.

One of his newer endeavors is the Sustainable Living Project, which opened on Earth Day 2012 on an acre of land across from Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. It's one of five gardens Carey is responsible for — the others are in Riverview, Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Thirteen grow boxes in the Tampa location have been planted with fall seedlings including eggplant, winter squash, carrots and tomatoes.

"It's a companion gardening system so that each bed has several different plants in it that don't fight each other for nutrition in the soil," Carey said.

Rainwater is captured. Local tree services donate mulch. Neighbors bring in coffee grounds and egg shells to nourish the plants. Lowry Park Zoo donates zoo manure as needed.

Carey, who recently completed an aquaponics course, even plans to grow and harvest tilapia, a good source of protein for the hungry. The fish waste will be recycled into grow beds to fertilize vegetables.

Carey isn't sure how much food the Sustainable Living Project will net once it's complete, but he predicts a ton or two of food each year.

"The way I look at it is, whatever we produce is more than what was there," he said.

He plans to create even more gardens — if he can keep his job.

Keyes is hoping people will open their hearts and pocketbooks to keep Tampa Bay Harvest on track and their conductor onboard.

"We would go on without Will," he said. "We'd figure out a way to operate but would lose an awful lot, including the gardens."

.Fast facts

Want to help?

Checks made out to Tampa Bay Harvest may be sent to Steve Mitchell, Treasurer, 101 Oak Ave., Palm Harbor, FL 34684 or to Will Carey, executive director, 612 Prince­ton St., Brandon, FL 33511. Donations also can be made online at www.tampabayharvest.org or call (727) 538-7777, line 3.

Tampa Bay Harvest is hungry for donations to pay its director 10/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 10:48pm]

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