TAMPA — Thomas Mantz has taken on disaster before.
As CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, the region’s largest food rescue and distribution organization, he coordinated emergency food relief after hurricanes and during the 2019 government shutdown.
So when coronavirus cases appeared on America’s west coast in January 2020, he began planning, but with little idea what to expect.
It wasn’t until March, when The Players Championship golf tournament and the NBA season were canceled on consecutive days, that the scale of the economic downturn facing the region dawned on him.
Employees at local stadiums and concert halls were suddenly furloughed or laid off. Restaurants, bars and tourist destinations quickly closed their doors. Mantz knew these were workers who typically have next to no savings with which to weather an economic storm.
Within weeks, the number of families considered “food insecure” in the 10-county region served by the nonprofit exploded from about 600,000 to more than 1.3 million. At the same time, supermarket shelves were emptied, and unlike a hurricane, this was a global emergency. There would be no trucking in food from other states.
“I remember laying in bed at night thinking, how do we feed all these people?” Mantz said. “God, I was scared. The last thing you want to do is let your community down.”
The devastating impact of the pandemic is reflected in the the response effort. In the 12-month period since the pandemic forced businesses to close, Feeding Tampa Bay estimates it provided 81 million meals, an increase of more than 17 million from 2019. Those include 750,000 cooked meals and more than 300 mega pantry events. The drive-thru foodbanks became a lifeline for tens of thousands of families, a place to pick up boxes of rice, pasta, canned goods and bags of produce.
At Metropolitan Ministries, almost 60,000 emergency food boxes were given out in 2020, an increase of more than 1,000 percent. The Tampa nonprofit also served 2.7 million meals and is working on a new program to get food and other resources into the hardest-hit communities in Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties.
“Our goal is 2,000 boxes a week. A year ago, before COVID, it was 200 a week,” said CEO and president Tim Marks.
At the start of the pandemic, relief efforts were hampered by panic buying. Feeding Tampa Bay was forced to spend millions to purchase produce and canned foods. It had to add a second warehouse to cope with the extra demand while doubling its staff to about 150 and increasing its pool of volunteers by 1,000 per month.
The nonprofit also reached out to restaurants that had closed and, with financial support from sponsors, paid furloughed kitchen staff to cook meals for the needy. Including those cooked at the nonprofit’s own kitchens for the homeless, more than 850,000 cooked meals were delivered to families and seniors.
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One of the partnerships was with the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg where roughly 500 meals per day were prepared during the three months it was closed. Owner Steve Westphal, who also owns Parkshore Grill, said the restaurant cooked more than 10,000 meals in all.
Trucks from Feeding Tampa Bay and other partners arrived daily to take ready-to-heat trays of pulled pork, breaded chicken, Salisbury steak and chicken teriyaki, along with sides of rice, pasta and vegetables, to local senior homes and nearby low-income neighborhoods.
“This was in a time there were lots of people who never left their house, a lot of people who were doing bad and terrified for the future,” said Hangar general manager Matt Smith. “We wanted to do the little bit we could do to help.”
The pandemic threw up other challenges.
Feeding Tampa Bay partnered with Tampa General Hospital and other health care agencies to launch FoodRx, a program that sets up “food pharmacies” that distribute healthy fruit and vegetables to residents with medical issues who lost their income because of the pandemic.
The program is offered at TGH hospitals and clinics to patients who have ailments such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. About 150 have taken part. The hope is that healthier diets will prevent more hospital visits, said Sue Walters, a TGH clinical nutrition specialist.
One recipient is Sulphur Springs resident Evelyn Kirkpatrick, a cancer survivor, has battled diabetes for about 15 years and receives medication to lower her cholesterol.
At the start of the pandemic, Kirkpatrick, 59, drove from store to store trying to find fresh produce after panic buying left shelves empty. Her wages also took a hit after the dry cleaners where she works reduced her weekly shift by 20 hours.
That meant she qualified for food stamps, but it was still tough to afford her weekly grocery bill. Her husband, who suffers from seizures, is unable to work.
Once a week, Kirkpatrick visits a mobile grocery store outside a TGH clinic on North 30th Street to pick up a bag of produce — carrots, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and a cabbage.
“To know that there’s help makes me feel much better,” she said. “It shows that somebody cares.”
Feeding Tampa Bay estimates that the number of “food insecure” people has fallen since the start of the pandemic, but the number is still about 1 million. Mantz warns that it could take three years or more for some families to pay down debt and restore their credit.
Congress’s vote this week to approve a new $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package will help, Mantz said. Lines at food pantries have shortened, at least for a few weeks, following the release of earlier government payments.
There were still plenty of families at Monday’s mega pantry at the University of South Florida. On average, more than 65 percent of those served had never visited a food pantry before the pandemic.
Jerri Ellis, 59, drove through in a white pickup truck, the fifth time she has waited in line at USF.
Her husband’s weekly shift with a soda company was reduced. The couple was forced to sell the home they had lived in since 2000 and are staying with family members until they can find somewhere affordable.
“I’ve never lived like this,” Ellis said. “A lot of people aren’t as lucky and don’t have a place to go.”
The team of volunteers, which includes USF students, is supervised by Kris Barra. She lost both her jobs — hairdresser and personal trainer — when gyms and salons closed down. It came as she and her husband had just purchased a new truck.
She applied to work for Feeding Tampa Bay after she went to a food bank to get groceries for her elderly neighbors who were wary of leaving their home.
“I looked at my husband and said, ‘This is what I have to do,’” she said.
She works five days a week at different mega pantries, making sure there are enough boxes of groceries for the long line of cars. When there is a surplus, volunteers can give out more to families who ask.
She’s begun to recognize many of the people she is helping. A newborn that she first saw in the fall can now lifts his head up when his mother drives through. A man who asked for extra food for his daughter who was on bed rest while pregnant with twins gave Barra a picture of his new grandchildren after they were born.
“There’s still a heartbreaking level of hopelessness on the faces of some of the people I see,” she said.
Want to help?
Donations can be made at:
Feeding Tampa Bay: https://feedingtampabay.org/
Metropolitan Ministries: https://www.metromin.org/