Feeding Tampa Bay to take hot and healthy meals into "food swamp" areas

After a merger with Trinity Cafe, Feeding Tampa Bay is planning to launch a new hot and healthy free meal program this spring to give families a healthy alternative to fast-food restaurants.
Published January 21
Updated January 21

TAMPA — When Feeding Tampa Bay launched a free healthy hot meal pilot program last spring, it didn't pick East Tampa, Wimauma or other high-poverty communities.

It found plenty of need in Carrollwood, where families took advantage of the phone app-based system to pick up meals like chicken cordon bleu with yellow rice and broccoli from food trucks sent to their neighborhood.

The high response showed the need for healthy cooked food, especially in areas known as ''food swamps'' because they have a high number of fast food restaurants, said Thomas Mantz, the group's executive director. What pleased him most was that meals reached families who likely would never ask for help, he said.

"We found that about 53 or 54 percent of those that came through never had been or never would go to a food bank," he said.

With a 10-county operation that is estimated this year to move 60 million pounds of food to groups that feed the needy, Feeding Tampa Bay is the region's largest food rescue and distribution organization. But the one thing the non-profit couldn't do was provide cooked meals until it partnered with Trinity Cafe, a free restaurant that serves more than 500 hot meals to homeless and needy people in two locations.

Now the two groups have officially merged and Feeding Tampa Bay is planning a second hot-meal program this spring that will reach more families.

Feeding Tampa Bay has no plans to change its core mission of providing food to church groups and others that run food banks. It has 20 trucks that carry items like cereal, canned goods, meat and vegetables from its 80,000 square-foot warehouse off Adamo Drive. Most of the food comes from local supermarkets or farmers.

But increasingly, Mentz said, research is showing that families don't just need food for the pantry. They need meals on the table. The hot-food program, which targeted customers through text messages and distributed meals from trucks parked at YMCAs, proved effective at reaching struggling families they had not been able to help before, Mantz said.

"We know there's a population of people that are economically distressed, that may not want to go to a food relief organization," Mantz said. "The bulk of the folks that get relief from us are working. They have homes, jobs, responsibilities."

The merger will not mean an end to Trinity Cafe's core mission of providing hot meals to anyone who turns up at its locations on Nebraska Avenue and near Busch Boulevard.

Although Trinty's kitchens are not large, Mantz estimates they're only operating at about 25 percent capacity and could go from making 400 meals to 2,500 meals per day, he said.

But with Trinity Cafe, Mantz also now has the headache of trying to placate neighbors in V.M. Ybor who have called on city and county leaders to tackle loitering, drug use and public urination they say comes with the homeless population attracted to the Nebraska Avenue facility.

Kelly Grimsdale, a neighbor and president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association, said the non-profit should spread out its feeding operation so it's not concentrated in her neighborhood. Her association has also called on Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to withhold some of the $165,000 the county gives each year to the nonprofit until it does a better job of keeping the neighborhood tidy.

"The mess is atrocious," she said. "We want some of these funds to be redirected to organizations that help get the homeless off the street, not to kick the can down the road and feed them one more day."

Mantz said he is looking into the issue but said there are homeless in that area that have no contact with Trinity. A March 2018 study conducted on behalf of Trinity Cafe found that only 40 percent of those who eat there are homeless. More than half come from outside the V.M Ybor neighborhood.

"We want to make sure that we're doing everything that we can whether that's cleanliness or security or safety or behavior control," Mantz said. "A lot of good things have been done already but I think we're going to have to go further."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.