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Feeding Tampa Bay families at their front doors

Coordinated effort is bringing hot meals and groceries to 500 children.

They start with macaroni and cheese. Kids love mac-n-cheese. Especially when it’s homemade.

So on a sultry Thursday in late July, in their sprawling catering kitchen in Palm Harbor, Jeff and Laurie Simpson and a dozen employees boil 95 pounds of pasta, melt 35 pounds of American and cheddar cheese and add five gallons of milk, “to make it nice and creamy.”

They cook 100 lbs. of hot dogs, sliced into bite-sized pieces. Make mounds of baked beans.

Enough to feed 500 children across Pinellas County.

“It’s very fulfilling, knowing who this food is for,” Jeff says. “It’s far from what we were doing. But it’s saved our business and helped so many families.”

Bartolo Romero seals a meal at Delectables Fine Catering as Laurie Simpson, director of catering, stands behind him. The Palm Harbor business is making 2,500 kid-friendly meals each week. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

The Simpsons and their friend Nick Adams have been running Delectables Fine Catering for 33 years. This summer was to be their busiest yet, with hundreds of high-end weddings, banquets and corporate events.

Then the coronavirus hit. They lost $500,000 in bookings and had to lay off their 25 employees. They were cleaning out the freezers when the call came: Could they make meals for kids?

***

Throughout the pandemic, churches and food pantries have been feeding folks across Tampa Bay. Many offer meals and groceries people can pick up.

But what if you don’t have a car? Or money for an Uber? You can’t carry a cooler on a bike or lug boxes onto a bus. Especially if you have kids.

Caitlyn Peacock has been worrying about those kids for years. As director of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, she knows they are fed through free lunch programs at school. But during summer, they often go hungry.

“Only 20 percent of kids who qualify for free lunch actually get them over the summer,” Peacock says. “We’d been looking for a way to fill that gap.”

Last October, she and her staff began planning a Meals on Wheels for Kids program. Modeled after the one for the elderly, volunteers would deliver five hot meals to each child’s doorstep every week -- plus groceries. “We’d planned to start June 1, after school got out, and were set to serve 20 kids,” Peacock says. “In March, when school got cancelled, we knew we had to look at this in a different way.”

There are now at least 180,000 “food insecure” people in Pinellas, a 50 percent increase from before the pandemic. More than 7,000 are children whose only dependable source of food was school meals.

Peacock reached out to Daystar Life Center, which offered food from its pantry. She talked to churches and recreation centers and The Kind Mouse, a local feeding organization. She got funding from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Juvenile Welfare Board, Bill Edwards Foundation, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Milkey Family Foundation and dozens of private donors. She raised $500,000, signed up 250 volunteers and found caterers willing to cook 2,500 homemade meals every week for $4 each.

The caterers hired back half of their employees. They signed a new contract with their food distributor, ordering different ingredients. Menus feature foods they think kids enjoy: BBQ chicken, turkey and gravy, lasagna, chili, braised beef tips over egg noodles.

They bought take-out containers and a food sealing machine, so they could vacuum-pack each meal. “We’ve never done take-out, or frozen our food. This is all new to us,” Jeff says. They store the meals in blue, rolling coolers, about the size of filing cabinets.

Peacock had planned to have volunteers deliver everything in their cars. But the coolers are too big. So she called Pinellas County Schools. Since the buses weren’t running, could she borrow some?

Initially, she asked out-of-work bus drivers to volunteer. Several did. Then she got a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg that allowed her to pay the drivers.

Funding was slated to continue until school starts. But now that so many kids aren’t going back, volunteers will keep bringing food through December -- at least. “Our goal is to be feeding 4,500 kids in Pinellas by the end of the year,” Peacock says.

Recently, the program added 50 kids of migrant workers in Wimauma, who get their own menu: chicken fajitas, cheese enchiladas, tamales with salsa verde. It also is accepting applications for kids on a new route in Dade City. “And we plan to add 2,000 kids in Hillsborough County and 1,000 in Pasco.”

In the last month, Peacock has gotten more than a dozen calls from nonprofits across the country looking for advice on how to start their own programs.

“We’re seeing all these kids still stuck at home for who knows how long,” she says. “We’re seeing that this works.”

***

On a sunny Saturday, two days after caterers made the mac-n-cheese, Jack Beary climbs onto the loading dock behind the Catherine Hickman Theater in Gulfport and unlocks the door. The 173 seats have been empty since March, when all performing arts shut down -- and Beary lost his job with the city.

But this morning, he turns on the lights and stacks empty boxes on the stage.

With funds from the feeding kids program, the city was able to hire Beary back to oversee the theater on days when nonprofits drop off pallets of groceries and volunteers come to pack boxes.

About 10 a.m., they start showing up, all wearing masks. Many have been here before. “Good morning! Thanks for coming!” calls Bailey Cross, who is wheeling a cart of grapefruit through the tables. “We’ve got new families today, so don’t forget the boxes backstage.”

Mark Adkins places fruit in boxes at the Catherine Hickman Theater in Gulfport. He was a first-time volunteer that Saturday who came looking for a way to help. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Cross works with Peacock at the Network to End Hunger. She writes a number on each box, to signify how many kids are in that house. She gives one volunteer a giant sack of rice, a box of Ziploc bags and a scoop. “Two cups for each kid,” she says. Another volunteer divides a big bag of pinto beans.

Bailey Cross, a Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger site coordinator, marks each box with the number of children in the household. Kids get groceries from Ramen to raisins, enough to share with their families. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

There are crates of apples, oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes, corn. Boxes of cereal, tuna, spaghetti. Applesauce, oatmeal, animal crackers — all donated.

A dozen people sort everything into the boxes. Most volunteers are retired teachers or social workers. They came looking for a way to give back -- and get out of their homes.

“It’s fun to see the different food we get each week,” says Emily Rowe, a kindergarten teacher who retired last year. “I think about all the kids who don’t have enough to eat, and how excited they’ll be to open their box and see what’s inside.”

At the theater, volunteers pack 35 boxes with groceries. At other sites across Tampa Bay, other volunteers are doing the same.

By 11 a.m., the pallets are empty. The boxes are full.

Since the Gulfport theater can't host plays or concerts, it is serving as a storage facility for donated food. Every week, volunteers get different produce and non-perishables to distribute to families across Pinellas County. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

***

Eight school buses are idling in the depot on 49th Street. In the windows, in white shoe polish, someone has written “Meals for Kids.”

It’s 9:35 on a bright Monday morning, two days since volunteers packed the groceries.

Tangela Butler is in the back of her bus, helping the caterers’ driver secure two coolers with red seat belts.

Ever since she was a girl, Butler has wanted to drive a “big, yellow school bus.” She’s had the job for 17 years. “I love the middle-schoolers, who are a challenge,” she says.

Tangela Butler, a Pinellas school bus driver, checks the frozen meals from Delectables Fine Catering before leaving to pick up boxes of groceries. She ties down the coolers with straps meant for securing wheelchairs. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

She turns into the theater, backs into the loading dock, where volunteers are waiting to load the groceries.

Asianna Lotito, a real estate agent, took the morning off to help. She slides into the front seat and asks Butler, “How many stops today?”

On this route: 13 families, 35 kids, 175 meals.

***

The first house is light blue, with an old trampoline out front. One child lives here, the sheet says. At 10:30 a.m., a volunteer texts, “We’re here!” and Lotito loads frozen meals on top of the groceries. As soon as she leaves the box by the door, an adolescent girl comes out, waving.

Next is a house with green shutters, and three kids inside. When a woman in pajama pants answers the door, a toddler peeks between her knees, grinning.

Five kids live at the next stop, Mastry’s Apartments. “Let’s give them two boxes,” Butler says. “And anything extra.”

As Lotito carries the first box toward the fence, a small girl in a blue dress runs out to open the gate. “Hi!” calls Lotito. “Don’t you look pretty!” The girl’s mom comes out, pulling a rolling cart.

Amari Silva is 6 -- the youngest in the family. She trails her mom closely, staring at the boxes. “You need help?” asks Lotito.

Kim DeGroff shakes her head. “No, we got this. Thank you! She’s been waiting for you.”

Amari Silva, 6, left, stands next to her mom, Kim DeGroff, as she rearranges frozen meals that had just been dropped off. The girl couldn't wait to see what was in the box. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

DeGroff is a stay-home mom. The dad of her two youngest children is a tree trimmer who has been out of work. They don’t have a car. All five kids were getting free lunch at school but have been stuck at home since March, crowded into the apartment.

“I can’t even tell you how much it has helped,” DeGroff says of the meals program. “The food is such high quality -- so much better than school lunch. And the groceries keep my pantry stocked.”

As soon as DeGroff carries the boxes to the kitchen, Amari dives in, asking, “What did we get?” She sets aside the raisins, animal crackers and fruit.

Then, squealing, she holds up the tray with mac-n-cheese.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

NEED HELP?

If your child qualifies for free lunch, they’re eligible to get five homemade meals per week, plus a box of groceries, delivered to your doorstep. Other families are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Call: 813-344-5837

Or go to: https://networktoendhunger.org/mow4kids/

WANT TO HELP?

Send checks to: Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, 4532 W. Kennedy Blvd., #252, Tampa, Fl. 33609

Or go to: https://networktoendhunger.org/donate/

Volunteers also are needed to pack groceries and help deliver meals from school buses.

Sign-up at: https://networktoendhunger.org/volunteer/

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