ST. PETERSBURG — More than three-quarters of the bus riders in Pinellas County can't afford their own car. Many of them also struggle to buy necessities like groceries.
So it made sense to the county's bus agency when officials from Feeding Tampa Bay asked if it would be interested in sponsoring mobile food pantries at busy bus stations. The pilot program is intended to put healthy groceries — including meat and fresh produce — within reach of bus riders.
On Tuesday, more than 200 people attended the first mobile pantry at a bus hub close to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters in north St. Petersburg. By the time it opened at 9 a.m., some had been in line for almost three hours.
Samantha Jones was there because she just moved to a new house and lost all her food when the power was turned off early. Alan Shapiro came to pick up groceries even though he has nowhere to keep them after he became homeless eight weeks ago following a car accident that left him unable to work.
The large turnout shows just how much need there is in Pinellas, said Matt Spence, chief program officer with Feeding Tampa Bay, a non-profit estimated this year to move 60 million pounds of food to groups that feed the needy across a 10-county area.
"I think it would surprise people who aren't aware of the need in our community, but more than a quarter of our community is food insecure, and more than half of our children," he said. Food insecurity is defined as lacking regular access to affordable, nutritious food. Feeding Tampa Bay has set itself a target of ending hunger and food insecurity in the Tampa Bay region by 2025.
The bus agency spent about $5,400 to sponsor the program, which will include three other mobile pantry events scheduled later this year. It placed advertisements on buses and on social media and sent text messages to riders to let them know about the free food. As an extra incentive, the first 25 people in line received a portable shopping cart.
CEO Brad Miller was among dozens of bus agency staff handing out bread, soda, canned goods and fresh produce, including cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers. A refrigerated truck had ground beef, chicken and pork.
Most of the 35,000 people who regularly ride the bus work, he said, but many of them are low-paid service jobs. A United Way study released in February found that 43 percent of Tampa Bay area families struggle to afford basics like food, healthcare and transportation. About 67 percent of the state's jobs pay less than $20 an hour, the report states.
The pantry is open to anyone who attends regardless of how much they earn. If the program proves popular it will likely be expanded, Miller said.
"Connecting food or things that they need to the transportation that they're using is very important," he said.
Stella Adams, 56, rode the bus from her Largo home to reach the pantry. She waited for close to two hours in her wheelchair to reach the front of the line. Strapped to the back of her chair was the oxygen tank she needs to breathe easily.
Volunteers helped her fill a large canvas bag with chicken, beef, hamburger buns, onions and cereal.
"I don't have a lot of money and I have a 19-year-old," she said. pointing to her son, Nicklaus Johnson.
Linking a food pantry to the bus service is a great idea for people like her who don't have a car and can't always get to regularly scheduled pantries, she said.
"There are a lot of people in need," she said. "You don't have to be ashamed to be asking for help."
Charles Starr, who lives close to Disston Plaza, said he was there out of necessity. He was diagnosed with the HIV virus in 2006 and struggles to afford enough food with the $15 a month he receives in food stamps.
"To get fresh produce, that's an amazing thing," he said.
Marilyn Pitrelli, 53, rode two buses to the event. She is on disability because of a heart condition and epilepsy.
"I have to watch what I eat," she said. "It makes it difficult, especially on food stamps because you can't afford to buy organic, gluten free, you know, sugar-free."
Feeding Tampa Bay in 2016 partnered with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority to set up a food market at a bus transfer station. If the mobile pantries prove successful, Spence said, the non-profit may try and start a similar program in Hillsborough.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.