TAMPA — It’s been three months since Antoine Everett got a weekend off.
Like every employee at Feeding Tampa Bay, his life was upended by the coronavirus pandemic as the group has scrambled to respond to the region’s growing food crisis. Much of that work has involved long shifts under a hot sun at “mega pantries,” where upwards of 1,000 families drive through for free boxes of milk, produce and other groceries.
With no end to the pandemic in sight and worried that his staff and volunteers are at risk of burnout, the group’s president and CEO, Thomas Mantz, is suspending this weekend’s “mega pantry” events at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry campus and Tropicana Field to give them a first weekend off.
“Our team has been working nights and weekends for the better part of three and a half months,” Mantz said. “We felt it important to give everyone a rest as we finish the first 90 days of the pandemic and now prepare for the next six months.”
The group is holding a one-time mega-pantry at the University of South Florida on Wednesday to ensure that local families have enough food to get through the break. Workers plan to feed as many as 1,500 families at the event, which will be at the Yuengling Center at 3 p.m.
The pandemic has strained the resources of the nonprofit group, which serves a 10-county region centered around Tampa Bay.
Nearly 2.1 million Floridians have filed unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic, and the unemployment rate in May was 14.5 percent, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity. In the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, more than 102,000 jobs had been lost compared to May of last year.
Feeding Tampa Bay estimates that the number of “food insecure” people in the region has risen from 600,000 to more than 1.3 million during the pandemic. Food insecurity is defined as lacking regular access to affordable, nutritious food.
The group’s mega pantries in Tampa and St. Petersburg began in April and serve an average of 4,000 people per week. In the past few weeks, it has expanded the program to Pasco, Manatee and Polk counties as demand has increased.
The break is sorely needed, Everett said. It’s not just the grueling schedule and time away from his partner and three dogs, but the constant fear of contagion that is wearing down him and his colleagues, he said.
Everett, 36, has worked for Feeding Tampa Bay for more than five years. He supervises volunteers, which puts him in contact with a lot of people.
Staff and volunteers wear masks and gloves, he said, but they still risk catching the virus and bringing it home to their families.
Everett, who served in the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he has been surprised and heartened at the number of volunteers who give their time, even though they risk infection.
“It seems like it gets worse and worse and worse and wondering when is this going to plateau?” he said. “Everyone has been putting their own personal life on the back burner.”
Need help with food?
Feeding Tampa Bay will not hold food pantry events this weekend at Tropicana Field and Hillsborough Community College.
A one-time, “mega pantry” drive-through pantry will be held Wednesday at the Yuengling Center at the University of South Florida, 12499 USF Bull Run Drive, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.
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