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Coronavirus panic-buying robs nonprofits of groceries they hand out to the needy

Donations of unsold food from grocery stores are down as much as 80 percent, leaving some food pantry shelves empty.
If there are empty shelves at supermarkets, there are empty shelves at food banks like this one in South St. Petersburg's Daystar Life Center. Contributions from the stores are down as much as 80 percent, local nonprofits say.
If there are empty shelves at supermarkets, there are empty shelves at food banks like this one in South St. Petersburg's Daystar Life Center. Contributions from the stores are down as much as 80 percent, local nonprofits say. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 18, 2020
Updated Mar. 18, 2020

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TAMPA — Olga Carvalho never imagined she would need to go to a food pantry.

But Wednesday morning, she and her sister were loading their car with boxes holding cereal, two rolls of toilet paper, canned vegetables and macaroni and cheese from an emergency drive-thru food bank set up by Metropolitan Ministries on North Tampa Street.

A server at Golden Corral, Carvalho usually works a 35-hour week. Now, her hours have been cut to just 15.

“This has never happened to me before,” she said. “I’m very worried.”

Food pantries across Tampa Bay are bracing for a surge in demand as layoffs and reduced hours put thousands more families into financial difficulty. And it comes as panic buying fueled by fears of the coronavirus has cut donations of unsold food by grocery stores as much as 80 percent.

The result is empty shelves at some food banks and a run on emergency supplies at other nonprofits. Some groups are using emergency funds to buy food. Every group contacted by the Times said they are in urgent need of money or food donations.

Volunteers at Metropolitan Ministries campus in Tampa clean carts used to give food boxes to the needy.
Volunteers at Metropolitan Ministries campus in Tampa clean carts used to give food boxes to the needy. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]

About 100 boxes of food were piled up in the parking lot of Metropolitan Ministries on Wednesday morning. To keep volunteers safe from the virus, the nonprofit’s food bank now operates outdoors. More than 120 boxes were distributed Tuesday but the weekly delivery of unsold food from grocery stores was down 75 percent, said Justine Burke, vice president of marketing.

For now, Metropolitan Ministries is relying on food from its warehouse. There is enough for about 10 days. Burke expects the crisis to last much longer.

“In a month from now, people who lost those wages won’t be able to pay their bills or buy food,” she said. “Those are the families we are going to see, people who have never needed our services before.”

Daystar Life Center in south St. Petersburg normally serves up to 100 people a day, but most shelves are empty in the food pantry.

Daystar Life Center Executive Director Jane Trocheck Walker says many donations are hard to come by, especially during a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic.
Daystar Life Center Executive Director Jane Trocheck Walker says many donations are hard to come by, especially during a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The supply of meat and produce is down about 50 percent from Feeding Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that serves food pantries across a 10-county area, said Daystar spokeswoman Suzanne Palmer. Bread and sweets normally donated three times a week from Publix also are down by half.

“Currently, our shelves are all but bare,” Palmer said.

The walk-in pantry at the Society of St Vincent de Paul South Pinellas has been closed to the public because of coronavirus concerns. But the group must still feed roughly 200 people at its shelter on 15th Street North. That includes 55 children who are no longer getting breakfast and lunch at school, closed until April 15 at the earliest.

“Food flow is killing us,” said chief executive Michael Raposa. “We were hoping this was just a two-week delay and now they’re talking July. It’s just a huge problem.”

Donations from grocery stores are typically food items that still are good but are past or near their sell-by date. This includes fruit and vegetables.

As of 2018, Lakeland-based Publix had donated more than 285 million pounds of perishable food to food banks, according to its website. But panic buying of items like bread, pasta, water, toilet paper and cleaning products has emptied shelves in stores across the nation.

Spokeswoman Maria Brous could not provide details on donation levels but said some stores may be imposing limits on high-demand items.

“Currently, there is less to donate as customers are purchasing in heavy demand," Brous said in an email. “We continue to work with our food bank partners to understand their needs, and assist as we can.”

Some nonprofits plan to start buying food so they can help those who depend upon them.

Jennifer Yeagley, chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic said they hope to be able to negotiate bulk purchases for “pennies on the dollar.”

“We’re expecting a longer horizon before food gets to us,” Yeagley said. “We’re focusing on dry goods that have a longer shelf life.”

Clearwater nonprofit Religious Community Services also plans to buy food. Its food donations are down about 80 percent, said President Kirk Ray Smith. He is hoping the public will step up as more people look to nonprofits to feed their families. A donation of just $25 can feed 10 people, he said.

“There’s no dollar amount that is too little — it goes a long way,” he said.

Shayla Bowden, 20, arrived at Metropolitan Ministries on Wednesday morning with her 1-year-old son in her car. She was laid off from her job at a call center last week and is now homeless. She has been staying with friends but is afraid she won’t be able to rely on their kindness for long. She’s afraid she won’t be able to find a new job.

“Right now," she said, “everyone is getting laid off.”

WANT TO HELP?

Nonprofits say donations are down because of panic buying. Here are some of the Tampa Bay groups who feed the needy.

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