RIVERVIEW — Families waited patiently in their vehicles. Many arrived three hours early. Some came on foot.
“It’s the only chance I have of getting some food together,” said Alice White, 67, who cares for three grandchildren. "It’s our lifeline.”
Jeaniel Image motioned to the line of 360 vehicles snaking around the parking lot and onto the street Wednesday morning at River Of Life Christian Church in Riverview, waiting for their box of food.
“This is like a state of emergency because many people are desperate,” said Image, a U.S. Navy reservist who organized a group of eight military volunteers to help in the church’s monthly food distribution. It’s been going on for 20 years.
There’s nothing routine about the distribution these days, though. The coronavirus has thrown people like White and her husband out of work or severely cut their hours.
“We serve about 2,500 people a month during this pandemic,” said church pastor Johnny Honaker. “Before the coronavirus, we helped 1,800 families. It’s a huge operation.”
Volunteers in masks worked an assembly line, filling boxes with fresh food and dry goods — meat, canned food, vegetables, rice, fruit and snacks for the children. They carried the boxes straight to the vehicles with minimal social contact.
The event was sponsored by Walter Farms, Long & Scott Farms and Feeding Tampa Bay — the umbrella organization that provides food to some 500 groups in a 10-county region.
“We usually have more than 300 boxes of food like this," said Marcus Marshall, outreach director with River of Life. "We understand that in the midst of the pandemic, it is hard because people don’t know what to do. So we are here to give them a hand.”
Image, the reservist, came with The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that mobilizes military veterans to help people and communities in need during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“Many years ago I was on a similar line waiting for food, so I know what that feels like," she said. "This is my first time here, volunteering in Riverview, but I did food distribution with other organizations. It is the same scene: Hundreds of people waiting.
White comes for the monthly food box so she can save money. She is unemployed and he works fewer hours these days at a company that makes metal parts. Their grandchildren are 13, 7 and 5.
“It is my third or fourth time," White said. "It is hard to come and ask for food, wait for hours and put shame aside. But it is what we have. If it weren’t for these donations, I don’t know what we’d be eating.”
A few cars away, Albert Kemp, 42, was reading his Bible as he waited in his minivan. He came with his daughter Melissa, 15, all the way from Wesley Chapel. He lost his job at a car dealership in March and has seen the lines of vehicles growing at food distribution sites ever since.
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“This helps us a lot," he said.
“These are very difficult times because there is no job and there is no guarantee that you, or me, or my daughter will not get sick.”
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