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Kitchen caters to the needy

By battered bike and pickup, but mostly by ill-shod feet they came, reaching through a window for a plastic plate of rice and beans, poultry and bread.

On the other side of that window, 85-year-old Lula Vinson and other volunteers dressed in blue smocks fed free hot lunches to young and old, clean and dirty, proud and humble.

"I think that perhaps the vast majority of them are homeless or close to homelessness," said the Rev. Wilkins Garrett, who began the 13-year-old feeding program, called Project Daily Bread, across the street from Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church, 955 20th St. S.

"I have also seen people who are unemployed. In the summertime, depending on the time of the month, we sometimes get children. This becomes their source of food. And we've got some working people who come . . . the working poor."

Darryl Swanson, 30, a welder by trade, is one of the unemployed. "I have been out of work for a month and a half. I come here about two or three days out of a week," he said. "I am doing odd jobs every once in a while."

Counted among the homeless is Roland Gilchrist, 34, a day laborer. "I only came because I was off today and needed something to eat," he said.

John Clary, 48, appears to be among the working poor. Watching his 20-month-old son, Dereck, grapple with his child-sized portion of food, the auto body shop worker said, "This is my day to babysit."

Karen Davis, one of the few women who goes to the Mount Zion kitchen, said she only does so "every now and then." The gaunt, former factory worker appeared to be in her early 30s.

"I think most of them live in the 22nd Street area," Mount Zion's pastor said of those who come to be fed. "The first day I went out with some fliers . . . I went to the bars and pool halls on 22nd Street. I only had to do that once."

He added: "I was aware that there was a tremendous amount of poverty in this area. I was also aware that there were large numbers of people not eating. Some of it was probably their own fault, due to alcohol and drug addiction. I called one of our members and asked if she would be willing to come out here and cook. The goal was to feed people who didn't have other resources for food."

Heeding his call was Mattie Ruth, now 71. Before undergoing surgery in November, she did most of the cooking for the program. "We started out with soup and sandwiches," she recalled recently. Soon, however, she convinced her pastor that it would be cheaper and more filling to serve a meal.

These days at least 100 meals are served on weekdays, Garrett said. "It just depends on what time of the month it is. Probably the last week of the month they serve 200 meals a day. For those who have welfare checks and food stamps, that's gone."

Operated by Mount Zion Human Services Inc., a not-for-profit corporation, Project Daily Bread has received about $5,000 annually from the United Way for the past three or four years, Garrett said. The church also donates about $5,000 to the effort. The program receives supplies from St. Petersburg Free Clinic's food bank twice a month, said Linda Hogans, executive director for Mount Zion Human Services.

Still, it seems almost impossible to serve at least 100 meals a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for $10,000. Not so, said Garrett.

"Those cooks know how to take a little bit and make a lot, like my mama did," he said. "When you are serving a lot of rice, beans . . . corn bread is not expensive to make . . . turkey parts, they are able to do it. If you figure we serve a minimum of 500 plates a week, that's 26,000 meals per year, it costs about 39 cents a meal. Of course, we do more than 26,000 meals, so we probably are serving for less than 39 cents a piece."

For the thousands who participate in the free program each year, lunch, which is served from 1 to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, comes at an unbeatable price. Meals are not served on weekends.

"It would be nice, but we don't really have the volunteers," said Garrett.

Those who do give their time to the program are dedicated. Like Adja Terry, who has been volunteering four years. "I know that it is part of the Lord's work," she said.

And so does Florida A&M University graduate Shavar Harris, who works with young boys in Mount Zion's mentoring program. "I don't want the young men I am working with to end up like them," he said, responding to an observation that most of those who frequent the program are men.

The church has tried to address the additional ills that come with poverty, such as the decayed teeth and frail bodies of some of the program's beneficiaries.

"Some of them are sick," Garrett said. "We had the (Pinellas County Health Department) mobile unit come out once a week, but they didn't want to use it. I think that they come to eat and probably aren't real proud of their health situation. . . . It's not a lifestyle they're proud of."

It shows as they take their plates to the shaded wooden benches and tables nearby, eating and leaving as quickly and as quietly as they came.

SOUP KITCHENS

Beacon House

2151 Central Ave.

Dinner 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday

823-5780

Salvation Army

310 14th Avenue S.

(must have I.D.) Dinner 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday

Brown bag dinners on Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m.

821-9123

St. Vincent DePaul

757 Arlington Ave.

Lunch, 7 days a week, 11 a.m. to noon.

821 -3446

Mount Zion Human Services

955 20th St. S.

Lunch 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays

894-4311People That Love Mission

817 5th Ave. N.

Dinner Monday through Saturday 4:00 p.m. to 5.30 p.m.

525-4789

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