Sweetbay closings send charities scrambling to fill food donations gap

For a poor St. Petersburg neighborhood, news of the loss of its sole supermarket was devastating, but repercussions from the shutting of almost three dozen Sweetbay stores reverberate far beyond.

Tampa Bay area organizations that assist the homeless and impoverished had come to depend on Sweetbay's donations of thousands of pounds of expiring produce, meats and baked goods from neighborhood stores.

For some, the loss of donations has been crippling.

"We were open five days a week and now we are open three and a half," said Michael Herrera, executive director of the Shepherd Center in Tarpon Springs, which helps people from Dunedin to the Pasco border.

Michael Raposa, who heads St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg, said the charity used to receive about 18,000 pounds of food a week from Sweetbay that went to its soup kitchen. About 900 people ate three meals a day there.

Now, said Raposa, St. Vincent de Paul has had to make "the difficult decision, that effective Monday, we will stop breakfast on all days but Sundays. … I realize that Sweetbay had to make tough decisions, but the community needs to realize what a good community partner we are losing. We are losing a good friend, a best friend."

It was in mid January that Sweetbay announced it would close 33 "underperforming" supermarkets and cut 2,000 jobs. Bargain hunters quickly swept shelves of discounted goods and the doomed stores closed this week, days before the Feb. 13 deadline.

A spokeswoman for the Belgian-owned chain acknowledged the effect of the closures on area charities.

"Obviously, with the closing of 33 stores, the amount of food we regularly donate to our communities will unfortunately be reduced," Nicole LeBeau said, noting that the 72 remaining supermarkets will continue to make donations to neighboring pantries.

"As a company, we will also continue our charitable efforts through in-kind and financial donations in order to fight hunger in our communities," she said.

The cutback is creating a ripple effect in the food pantry system, with some larger agencies that have traditionally supplied smaller ones bracing to pick up the slack.

Feeding America Tampa Bay, which has warehouses in Tampa, Land O'Lakes and Pinellas Park, distributed more than 30 million pounds of food to 600 west-central Florida agencies last year, director of development Debbi McCarthy said.

She said the organization gives away donated perishables and offers certain types of food to agencies for up to 18 cents a pound. Last year, she said, Sweetbay — which has two representatives on the Feeding America Tampa Bay board — donated 5.8 million pounds of food to the agency and was its largest donor.

The loss of 33 Sweetbay stores will be felt, McCarthy said.

"But the 72 stores will continue to do those donations and we are grateful for that," she said, adding that her organization also counts on Sam's, Walmart, Target, Winn-Dixie, BJ's and Publix.

The Sweetbay closures worry Beth Houghton, executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. The agency serves its own clients and donates food to 64 other organizations throughout south Pinellas, including low-income day care centers, community kitchens and other food pantries.

"We're the sole source of food for some of them,'' Houghton said. "The need for food has not gone down, but the supply has gone down. We've seen more agencies come to us for food.

"Just from the four stores that are closing, we got about 10 percent of our food, 200,000 pounds a year. More than the poundage, it was really particularly valuable and healthy food. We got produce and meat from them, which is especially precious."

Like St. Vincent de Paul, the Free Clinic is hunting for new donors, as is Volunteer Way in New Port Richey.

"Sweetbay gave us the produce they cannot sell at the end of the day. That's 400 pounds a week that we won't have," said Martha O'Brien, assistant chief executive officer for Volunteer Way, which feeds families and others who sleep in tents and dilapidated trailers near its soup kitchen.

The calls have been coming in to the food bank at Religious Community Services in Clearwater, which distributes food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to agencies stretching from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

"What RCS is going to do is try to mitigate some of the lack of donations through our USDA commodities and through any excess emergency donations we receive," said C.J. Crooks, the agency's director of development.

RCS had received only "a minimal amount" of food from Sweetbay, he said.

At the west Hillsborough County St. Vincent de Paul, executive director Nancy Jones says she is thankful that her neighborhood Sweetbay is still open.

"They help us six days a week," she said. "We are just praying that it's not one that is closed down the road."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727)892-2283.

Sweetbay closings send charities scrambling to fill food donations gap 02/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 11:08pm]

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