The last week of the month can be rough for Ashley Southern.
She had been working as a delivery truck driver until a year ago, when that gig dried up. Now the 29-year-old single mother of four relies on food stamps to feed her family. But the food stamps only go so far. Come the last week of the month, Southern could use some help. Once every couple of months, she makes her way to the food pantry at First United Methodist Church of Hudson. Without the pantry, she believes she would starve.
"There's not many other options," Southern said. "There's a couple of other food banks, but they only hand out bread. You can only feed the kids bread for so long."
Southern was among the 160 families who packed the parking lot Tuesday for the church's first mobile pantry distribution event coordinated by Feeding America, a network of food banks that organize 16 distribution events per month in the bay area, three of them in Pasco County. Tuesday's event was sponsored by Save A Lot, which helped Feeding America raise the $2,000 it costs to run a distribution.
Two lines of cars snaked along the church's 13-acre property, some arriving as early as 4 a.m., waiting for the clock to strike 11 a.m., when volunteers would begin loading boxes of food into visitors' trunks.
Thirty church volunteers, a dozen Save A Lot volunteers and two members of Feeding America assembled the boxes from nearly 12,000 pounds of food — enough to feed about 400 families. Each family received a box containing meat, dairy, eggs, produce, bread and snacks that could feed a typical family about three meals. Food that was not distributed at the event will be available during pantry hours from 9 a.m. to noon today.
The church's food pantry ministry has exploded in recent years. Seven years ago, the pantry served six families a week, at best. Now, the pantry sees about 100 families per week, and it continues to grow. Martha Beneduci and a few volunteers go to Feeding America's food bank in Land O'Lakes every Tuesday to stock up for the next day's pantry hours, loading up the church bus with anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 pounds of food. On some occasions, she's brought back up to 4,000 pounds.
It was during one of these trips that Beneduci asked Feeding America to do a distribution event at her church. After surveying the grounds, Feeding America agreed, and the event may open the doors for future food distributions at the church.
"I think we'll come here again," mobile pantry coordinator and retired police officer Rudy Garrett said. "Everything is here that we need."
Organizers said the turnout Tuesday shows that Hudson could benefit from future food distribution events.
"Pasco County used to be a lot more senior citizens, and retirees came down here with set incomes," Beneduci said. "We have so many young families and children that are hungry now. It's just scary."
Food pantry coordinator Mae Renwick is grateful for the opportunity to help the community.
"What a blessing Feeding America has been to us," Renwick said. "We're very thankful for Feeding America and Save A Lot coming to help us."
The work of the volunteers at First United Methodist Church has not gone unappreciated.
"They're really nice," Southern said. "They give you everything they can."
Like Southern and many others in line, Amanda Perry is on disability and struggles to stretch food stamps every month.
"It's a blessing," said Perry, 60, of the food distribution event. "It's really, really nice for them to do this. It helps me out a lot. A real lot."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.