Since the area came under the grip of the coronavirus, Tampa Bay food pantries have seen the need for help double and in some cases soar by up to 400 times the typical demand.
“Overnight, the demand for access to food – the most basic human right – overtook our community,” said Thomas Manz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay.
The coming holidays only add to the stress of food insecurity, advocates say. Feeding Tampa Bay has doubled its weekly meal distribution from 1 million to 2 million meals, according to the organization. And 68 percent of the people they have served are new to food assistance.
Metropolitan Ministries, one of the area’s largest nonprofits that helps people in need, has reported some sobering statistics:
- It has distributed 56,000 food boxes from March through September, about 10 times more than normal.
- The need for holiday assistance during Thanksgiving and Christmas has doubled this year, the largest in the organization’s history. It expects to serve as many as 50,000 families this holiday season. Last year, they served 26,000.
- The organization purchased $600,000 in food to serve families for just Thanksgiving through its holiday tent in Tampa. Last year, they spent $250,000 for the entire Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
Last week, Angelina Gomez Hernandez waited in line for food donations at University Area Community Center in Tampa with Joel, her youngest of four children, who is 5 months old. University Area CDC and Metropolitan Ministries donated Thanksgiving meals to more than 600 families in need.
“This helps us a lot,” Gomez Hernandez said in Spanish. “Sometimes there’s nothing at home, but with this, it’s something for our kids.”
At Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg, there has been a 40 percent increase in the need for its services since July. The center helps with food, clothing, bus passes, rent and utility assistance, and helps people get ID cards and birth certificates.
Daystar gave out 2,000 parcels of groceries to help families get through the month of July. In October, the number had leaped to more than 3,000 grocery bags, said Suzanne Palmer, Daystar’s director of community engagement.
Coronavirus precautions have also added an extra wrinkle for the helpers. Thanksgiving meals delivered to Uptown University Area residents residents in Tampa were distributed in a drive-by fashion with volunteers in protective gear.
The good news is generosity has also increased as the needs have been made known, according to Metropolitan Ministries.
In addition to the 20,000 Thanksgiving food boxes distributed through its holiday tents, hot meal preparations are underway. About 9,000 hot meals will be distributed this week, the organization said. That’s an increase from the 6,000 originally anticipated.
“The need is overwhelming, but so is the compassion and generosity of our Tampa Bay community,” spokesman Billy Somerville said.
Thad Bullard, better known as WWE star Titus O’Neil, is one of Tampa Bay’s high profile do-gooders, raising money and conducting food drives through his Bullard Foundation and with local organizations. He has spent years helping families in east Tampa, one of the most impoverished communities in the state, “for kids like me,” and he says the blow caused by the coronavirus has been astonishing. He encourages anyone to give as little as $5 or volunteer their time if they can, and then reap the benefits of giving.
Bullard said helping others leaves a lasting impression. “I think if anything else, 2020 has shown us is we can do a whole lot better job of treating people better.”
His goal is to get the needs met for 50,000 families in the Tampa Bay area for Metropolitan Ministries over the holidays. Last year, his foundation awarded four families with a new car, and this year he aims to do it for at least seven families. “I saw how my mom struggled having adequate transportation and a lot of these families can’t make ends meet, so maybe we an alleviate that.”
Next week, Metropolitan Ministries will kick off what it says is its most challenging Christmas assistance program ever.
“Those who struggled for Thanksgiving will still be struggling for Christmas,” Somerville said. The most needed items include turkeys, hams, yams, and cereal. The Ministries will need thousands of turkeys and 100,000 toys to get through the Christmas season, he said.
“There was a need before, and now it’s even greater,” said Caitlyn Peacock, executive director of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger. “I can’t tell you how many calls we have gotten from people who literally have nothing left in their pantry.”
The networks has increased the number of locations to distribute food and added numerous drive-by pantries to help fill the gap, Peacock said. She said the term “food insecurity” may be in need of an updated definition. Things like time, having a microwave and having the power on only add to the burden of feeding a family.
“Hunger is the one bill you just can’t manipulate, and it’s a burden that overwhelms all others,” Peacock said. “We aim to make dang sure it only lasts a moment.”
Feeding Tampa Bay hosts food distribution events nearly every day throughout its 10-county coverage area. You can find pantry locations at feedingtampabay.org/findfood. It also has partner pantries on its site where you can find a hot meal today or a place to pick up a box of groceries.
Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger operates Meals on Wheels in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and also has information on food pantries and offers assistance in applying for federal food assistance aid. Go to networktoendhunger.org/find-food to find a source near you. Call 813-344-5837 for more information.
How to help
Stand With FTB is a site set up by Feeding Tampa Bay that makes it easy to find a way to donate your time or money in its hunger efforts. Go to feedingtampabay.org/standwithftb to find specific suggestions to give your time and talent.
Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger works with numerous organizations and can use donations as well as volunteers and drivers. Go to networktoendhunger.org/ways-to-donate or call 813-344-5837.
Times staff writer Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.
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