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‘I’ve never done this before’: Tampa Bay food pantries see surge of the suddenly unemployed

The number of people using food pantries and banks across Tampa Bay has gone up 40 percent in recent weeks, according to Feeding Tampa Bay.
Monica Wilson registers a recipient of food with Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry on Wednesday in Tampa. In addition to the groceries, El Gallo De Oro restaurant and the Betts family donated more than 100 hot meals for four of yellow rice and beans and chicken.
Monica Wilson registers a recipient of food with Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry on Wednesday in Tampa. In addition to the groceries, El Gallo De Oro restaurant and the Betts family donated more than 100 hot meals for four of yellow rice and beans and chicken. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 2, 2020

TAMPA — As the dark, new-model car moved up in line at the Community Food Pantry, Monica Wilson could see that the man at the wheel was distraught.

Wilson, the pantry’s director, and her volunteers have done a lot less chatting than usual with their clients in recent weeks, as they adapted to the coronavirus with a drive-through-only system where hungry families’ trunks were filled with groceries in an efficient two or three minutes. But when this man pulled up beside her one day last week, Wilson knew she needed to say something.

Take a breath, she told him. She could tell he didn’t know what to say or do. He explained that he was a personal trainer with jobs at three gyms, but the pandemic had closed them and left him without a paycheck. He was also a single dad to three daughters.

“I’ve never done this before,” Wilson remembered him saying, “and I need to feed my kids.”

The conversation stuck out to Wilson, but she knew the man wasn’t the only one in that position. The Community Food Pantry normally serves 70 to 80 families on each of the nine or ten days a month it’s open, Wilson said, but last Sunday, nearly 150 families came through. And more than 80 of them were visiting the pantry for the first time.

“The person who may live right next door to you and drive a nice car and has a beautiful home — if he doesn’t have an income, it doesn’t matter,” Wilson said. “It’s very hard for a lot of the people who pull up in our parking lot. They’re crying before they even put their car in park, because they don’t like the position they’re in.”

This is what hunger in Tampa Bay looks like now, and it’s what it will keep looking like as the coronavirus continues crushing the job market. Already thousands of Tampa Bay residents depend on food pantries for at least some of their food. Now they’re joined by thousands more who have never struggled to feed themselves or their families — and who are entering this world just as hunger relief services stand at the precipice of being overwhelmed.

Volunteers with Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry prepare boxes and bags of groceries and even fresh flowers to guests driving through on Wednesday.
Volunteers with Feeding Tampa Bay and the Community Food Pantry prepare boxes and bags of groceries and even fresh flowers to guests driving through on Wednesday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Feeding Tampa Bay, which distributes food to pantries and similar services for 600,000 people across 10 counties, has seen a 40 percent uptick in people needing food in recent weeks, Chief Development Officer Kelley Sims said. Many of those people may have never needed to ask for help getting food before the pandemic left them jobless.

“For me, I’m most concerned about families who have never accessed hunger relief at all and don’t know how to navigate the process,” Sims said.

Related: At risk from the coronavirus and running low on food, Tampa Bay seniors get help from emergency program
Related: Coronavirus closings can cause hunger. Schools, volunteers are stepping up.

Many of these new or soon-to-be clients fall into in-between zones, said those tasked with keeping them fed. They may have made paychecks big enough that they never had to worry about grocery shopping but small enough that they have little or nothing in savings. They may have kids who usually eat two meals a day at school but are now constantly home. They may qualify for benefits but have not yet received them amid an overwhelmed unemployment system.

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They may be personal trainers or restaurant managers or hotel clerks, school teachers or administrators.

“We are discovering the lack of what people have,” said Jeffery Johnson, who manages neighborhood initiatives for United Way Suncoast and oversees the United Way’s Campbell Park Resource Center.

Related: Coronavirus panic-buying robs nonprofits of groceries they hand out to the needy
Related: Coronavirus unemployment crisis deepens in Florida and U.S.

The influx of newly food-strapped people coincides with a slew of complications for pantries and related services. Many volunteers, the driving force behind most of these places, now can’t or won’t leave their homes. Panic-shopping has left pantries short on the supplies they’re used to having in times of much lower demand. People who once needed to access a food pantry once a month now may need its help every week.

Though Wilson and Sims said various local people, restaurants and corporations have stepped in with big donations, the scenario puts nonprofits in potentially precarious financial positions: Wilson said the Community Food Pantry has tripled its usual spending over the past two weeks.

“The number’s gonna grow,” she said. “That’s probably our fear. It’s hard to get — just like it’s hard for people to find ground beef at Publix, it’s hard for us to find shelf-stable products in bulk.”

According to Feeding Tampa Bay, the number of people in the region who need help getting food has gone up 40 percent in recent weeks, driven by a crumbling job market and a surge in people who need hunger relief assistance for the first time in their lives.
According to Feeding Tampa Bay, the number of people in the region who need help getting food has gone up 40 percent in recent weeks, driven by a crumbling job market and a surge in people who need hunger relief assistance for the first time in their lives. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And there may be yet more people who need help but have been reluctant to ask for it. Johnson and Wilson both noted that some people going hungry, especially those who have never had trouble affording food before, default to an assumption that food pantries are meant for even hungrier people — an “I need it, but there are others who need it more than I do” mindset, as Johnson put it.

“But I think there’s an end of the line to that,” Wilson said. “It comes when your child is looking at you, when your parent is looking at you and wondering how to eat.”

There’s also a stigma some people feel attached to accessing public benefits or community resources. Before the pandemic, staff and volunteers had plenty of ways to show people that asking for help isn’t shameful. They had face-to-face conversations with people who came into the pantry, and they operated under “client choice” models, their spaces set up to replicate the feel of any market or grocery store.

Now, when crying parents come through their drive-through with carloads of kids, Wilson and her volunteers choke back their own tears. Along with their groceries, they give them donated flowers to make them feel appreciated. In the two or three minutes it takes to load a car, they crack jokes or talk about the weather, trying to offer an ounce of normalcy.

Wilson remembers saying something to the personal trainer about how hot it was that Sunday afternoon. From where he was sitting, he told her, it felt even hotter.

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