If you noticed something a little extra in your mailbox this week, don't toss it out as junk mail. The brown plastic bag is from your letter carrier and the idea is to fill it with food staples and put it back outside by your mailbox Saturday morning.
The letter carriers' effort is the nation's largest single day food drive and last year produced more than 73 million pounds of food. In Florida, carriers collected 10.8 million pounds, or nearly 15 percent of the national total. Pasco residents donated 239,000 pounds. The turnout in Hernando was remarkable, with carriers collecting 279,000 pounds, an average of 1.6 pounds of food from every resident in the county.
The effort doesn't have to end at the mailbox. Pupils at Chocachatti Elementary School in Brooksville, for instance, set up their own micro society this week with the students designated as postal workers conducting an authentic food drive, with staples sent in by parents. Thursday afternoon, they turned over the proceeds to actual mail carriers. Pasco County government workers held their own food drive as well. Participants can also donate food at Publix stores, U.S. Postal Service offices, United Way offices and some Bank of America branches.
Unfortunately, feeding the hungry is not a once-a-year event. Food picked up Saturday stays within the communities from which it is collected, but it won't last long. Nationally, the supply was exhausted within four months in 2008. This year, Albert Friedman of New Port Richey, the statewide coordinator of the drive for the U.S. Postal Service, predicted donations will be gone by July. The carriers chose May for the food drive because demand from families peaks over the summer months when children cannot avail themselves of the free or reduced-price school meals. That doesn't account for increasing need and shrinking food bank supplies from a down economy, foreclosures and high jobless rates in both Pasco and Hernando.
The United Way in both counties is attempting long-term strategies to keep food pantries filled. The United Way of Pasco County is coordinating a stock-the-shelves food drive to encourage businesses to collect canned goods and boxed foods from employees on behalf of a pantry. It kicked off during the recent Chasco Fiesta, but organizers discovered a parade and street festival aren't the most opportune times to solicit donations.
The United Way of Hernando is part of a group that has ambitions to open a food bank in Hernando County. Pantries are served currently by the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank in Land O'Lakes. It is a lofty goal that will require donated land or space, but the aim is to cut travel and other costs for local pantries, and to broaden offerings.
''To have a food bank with refrigerators or freezers so you can have milk or meat would be so important,'' said Kathy Jones, executive director of the United Way of Hernando. "There's only so many cans of beans and spaghetti you can eat.''
Indeed. But the immediate goal is to make sure there is an adequate supply of dry goods for the hungry. It's easy to lend a hand, and Saturday it's as simple as a trip to the mailbox.