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Tampa Bay charities struggle to retain holiday season volunteers

“The need in November is no different than the need in April,” said Thomas Mantz, CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay. “What changes is the community’s perception of the problem.”
 
Volunteer Rose Munoz sorts through items at Feeding Tampa Bay Tuesday in Tampa.
Volunteer Rose Munoz sorts through items at Feeding Tampa Bay Tuesday in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2023

After the Thanksgiving food pantry donations taper off and the holiday toy drives end, the new year rolls around and people return to their busy schedules.

For Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, Jan. 2 kicks off the most difficult time of year for the local nonprofit.

Each week, the organization delivers about 2 million meals to people in the 10 Tampa Bay-area counties it serves. It relies on roughly 55,000 volunteers each year. Starting in November and through Christmas, Mantz said the number of helpers jumps up about 20%.

Come January, volunteer sign-ups plummet, he said.

Volunteers sort through food items at Feeding Tampa Bay.
Volunteers sort through food items at Feeding Tampa Bay. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

This is because the holidays often inspire more acts of service. But Mantz said unlike the yearly wax and wane of the nonprofit’s volunteer force, food insecurity isn’t seasonal.

“This isn’t a holiday tradition for someone who is hungry. This is the reality of their world,” Mantz said. “While we’re glad that people come in because it’s the holiday season, and the ‘giving season,’ their neighbor is still going to need us to be there in March.”

He said the nonprofit has worked hard to enlist a number of loyal volunteers who understand the year-round need. They take the holidays off and pick up shifts when volunteers are fewer and farther between. It means the nonprofit always has enough volunteers to meet its food distribution goals, but little extra help to ramp up future meal-giving. Mantz said the organization has outgrown its current warehouse, which is the biggest limiting factor in how many meals the nonprofit can deliver. When Mantz and his staff move their operation to a new office in March, he said they’ll be able to distribute more food and will need more volunteers.

While the nonprofit delivers 2 million meals per week, Mantz says it’s still not enough. The goalposts are moving as Tampa Bay area families struggle amid skyrocketing housing costs and stubborn inflation rates.

“If we continue to think of food insecurity and hunger as a holiday issue, we’re doing ourselves and our community a disservice,” Mantz said.

To help recruit volunteers in the off-season, the nonprofit works to build relationships with people who volunteered their time in the fall. One tactic is to send out newsletters that keep past volunteers in the loop about upcoming opportunities. Another is to partner with local businesses.

Mantz said families, groups of friends and individual volunteers make up most of the holiday help, but groups of coworkers — through partnerships between feeding Tampa Bay and local businesses help staff the nonprofit during months when they are stretched thin.

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A recent shift in employee benefit structures has greatly helped the organization to stay staffed with volunteers year-round, Mantz said. In the past five years, he said some companies around the Tampa Bay area have started to provide paid volunteer hours to their workers as a benefits program.

“We can go to a big bank or manufacturer who’s a partner and say, ‘Hey, we’d really love to get some volunteers in January,’” he said. ”And so a lot of them are thoughtful about that.”

Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, smiles as he addresses the audience during a press conference at Feeding Tampa Bay on March 4, 2022, in Tampa.
Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, smiles as he addresses the audience during a press conference at Feeding Tampa Bay on March 4, 2022, in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In the summertime, Feeding Tampa Bay relies on youth groups and students looking to rack up volunteer hours needed for scholarships and honors societies. Next to the fall season, summers are typically the nonprofit’s second-busiest time of year, Mantz said.

That’s not the case for all local nonprofits that operate food banks.

Jennifer Yeagley said the summer months are typically the hardest for the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which provides food and increased access to health care and shelter to those who need it.

“Because of summer travel schedules, we experience our greatest need for volunteer support during the months of June, July and August,” Yeagley, who is the nonprofit’s CEO, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The clinic averages about 300 volunteers each week during the holiday season — roughly double the amount of weekly helpers on deck the rest of the year.

With a paid staff of 70 employees, the nonprofit relies heavily on its volunteers, who Yeagley said dedicated nearly 37,000 hours to the nonprofit last year. By her calculations, this saves the clinic more than $1 million in labor costs each year.

“We simply would not be able to reach as many people in need as we do without the dedication of volunteers who are willing to consistently serve,” Yeagley wrote.

“Worse and getting worse”

Though inflation peaked at 9% in June 2022 and has slowly declined since then, Mantz said food insecurity across Tampa Bay is worsening.

This is because COVID stimulus checks, expanded child tax credits and other pandemic-era relief have all dried up for most families.

“All of these things that were put in place to create safety nets around families have all sunset,” Mantz said. “So our numbers have gone up.”

Last year, the nonprofit delivered more than 85 million meals, but Mantz said he’s trying to reach a goal of 150 million meals each year so they could feed every Tampa Bay family in need. He said about 1 million people in the region are struggling with food insecurity. While that’s an improvement on the pandemic peak of 1½ million food-insecure people locally, the number still is higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Volunteers sort through items at Feeding Tampa Bay. The holidays often inspire more acts of service.
Volunteers sort through items at Feeding Tampa Bay. The holidays often inspire more acts of service. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

While inflation is slowing down and the unemployment rate is low, Mantz said the cost of living outpaces take-home pay.

“Most of the people that see us already have jobs,” Mantz said. “This is not an unemployment issue. It’s a wages issue.”

Recent strides, such as Florida’s gradual move to a $15 minimum wage, have helped some people, but high prices for gas, rent and groceries still are hurting families, he said.

“The reality is inflation has grown faster than all of that, and so whatever gains were made in your income have been far outstripped by inflation,” he said. “Folks are materially worse than they ever have been.”

For these reasons, Mantz said the nonprofit is always grateful for food and monetary donations year-round, as well as more volunteers willing to serve the community long after the giving season is over.

“The need in November is no different than the need in April,” Mantz said. “It does not change one iota. What changes is the community’s perception of the problem, and their desire to participate.”

How to help

Sign up to volunteer at St. Petersburg Free Clinic here or donate here.

Sign up to volunteer at Feeding Tampa Bay here or donate here.