Due to event cancellations prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg has been sitting empty and unused.
But beginning Saturday, its lobby will be filled with volunteers receiving and packaging up food for families in need.
In late April, St. Petersburg entrepreneur Bill Edwards gave $100,000 to the Meals on Wheels for Kids program through the Edwards Family Foundation. The money is helping the program launched March 23 deliver at least 25,000 meals as well as shelf stable groceries to families in need.
Meals on Wheels for Kids was launched by the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, in partnership with Share Our Strength’s No Kids Hungry, Pinellas County Schools Food and Nutrition, Daystar Life Center and the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County. It was developed in response to the school closures caused by the threat of COVID-19 as a way to replace school meals and to get food to people who have trouble accessing distribution sites and food pantries.
And now, the Mahaffey Theater, which is run by the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, will become a packaging and distribution site for the meals, every Friday through Monday through August.
“This is the best use for it in my opinion,” Edwards said. “If we can’t put on shows, we should use it to help people.”
Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts president Amy Miller coordinated with the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger to facilitate use of the space. State Representative Jennifer Webb, who is a business development consultant for the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, will be an onsite coordinator.
This Saturday, volunteers — including Miller and other staff from the foundation — will assemble the meals with food delivered by the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger. They will pack them into three school buses parked outside, and then on Monday, volunteers will deliver 1,500 meals each around St. Petersburg.
Miller said that Meals on Wheels for Kids is providing gloves and masks for the volunteers and that deliveries will be contactless.
If you are interested in getting meals through the program, you can call the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger at (813) 344-5837 or submit an application at NetworktoEndHunger.org/MOW4Kids. If eligible, meal delivery service can begin the following week.
The goal is to increase the amount of meals to 3,000 per week and to feed 50,000 families by the end of August. If schools don’t reopen, they’ll keep going, Miller said, “until they tell us to stop” or if the theater reopens.
The Edwards Family Foundation has been helping underprivileged children for 19 years, through its annual Christmas Gala Celebration that feeds and gives gifts to hundreds of families. School children in need can take part in the Bill Edwards Foundation of the Arts’ Class Acts program, which provides the opportunity to see a show.
“It’s important right now that we get these poor families fed during the worst time I’ve ever seen in my history,” Edwards said.
Since March 23, Meals on Wheels for Kids has delivered meals to 575 kids per week, said Lauren Vance, manager of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger.
Vance said the Edwards donation helped them reach more families throughout St. Petersburg, which is the area the program determined has the most need. But their ultimate goal is to reach all of Pinellas County.
Instead of asking for support of the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts on Giving Tuesday in early May, president Miller used a social media campaign to bring more awareness to Meals on Wheels for Kids.
“I encourage anyone in town who wants to contribute to help," Edwards said. "We can’t do this alone. It’s important that we get this accomplished.”
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