With Thanksgiving turkey soon to be on the table and Christmas in sight, Beth Houghton knows people have food on their minds — not just the food they're going to eat, but the food they're going to give.
It's a season for charity, and the executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic welcomes the rush of donations that pantries and food banks like hers can expect. But there's something she wants everyone to remember.
People are hungry 365 days a year.
In Tampa Bay, about one in four children and one in six adults are food insecure, according to Feeding Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization. That's thousands of people who often don't know where they're going to get their next meal.
It's not a problem confined to one ZIP code. And where hunger strikes can be surprising. New Tampa is known for big homes in gated neighborhoods. But it's also in the 33647 ZIP code the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger calculates as having the largest meal gap — or meals missed per year — in Tampa Bay, at about 1.3 million. And there, the food insecure have limited resources to get help.
The southern parts of St. Petersburg sit in food deserts, where much of a population that struggles with poverty and transportation is more than a mile from a grocery store, making fresh fruits and vegetables hard to get.
Using census tracts, data from Feeding Tampa Bay and a measure of a community's existing resources, the Network to End Hunger was able to map where need is locally — a visual aid for an often unseen problem.
"Hunger is hard because you can't look at people and know if they're hungry or not," said Pat Rogers, one of the network advocates responsible for the map. "It's a self-expressed issue and it's easy for people to hide."
So Rogers and others work to educate people to see the face of hunger not only in those living on the streets, but also in the homes of working families struggling to get by.
On the outskirts of the University of South Florida, about 30 people gathered near the intersection of Livingston and E Fletcher avenues on a recent Wednesday night.
Most of them hadn't eaten all day.
Streetlights along the dead-end road provided enough light for volunteers from New Tampa's Family of Christ Lutheran Church to set up folding tables and unload large vats of stuffing, mashed potatoes and hotdogs from their bus.
Latreile Thurman, 52, walked 20 minutes in the rain with her two grandsons, ages 11 and 4, to get dinner. She helps watch the children as her daughter struggles financially. Thurman knows the dead-end street offers a promised meal at least a few times a week.
"We can't hardly keep food on the table after paying the bills," she said.
The further out in all directions from the University of South Florida you go, the harder free meals can be to find.
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The Lutheran church volunteers are coming from a food insecure location themselves, New Tampa.
"There's a stigma that New Tampa is not in need because of the neighborhoods, because of the typical people, price of the homes, cars that are driven," said Pam Smith, who helps run one of the few pantries in the 33647 ZIP code.
Smith, the president of St. Mark the Evangelist Conference of St. Vincent de Paul, knows better than most not to assume someone's ability to afford groceries. Some people are in situational need, she said. Maybe they lost a job and are having to choose between buying groceries or paying for utilities for the first time.
Others stop by the pantry from two nearby low-income housing units — those families, Smith says, have a hard time accessing the more plentiful resources downtown.
"Some don't have cars, and there's no good bus line," Smith said. "They're just out here."
Help from church pantries and food banks tends to be concentrated in a city's urban core, said Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay. In the suburbs, where the need wasn't always present, resources aren't as readily available, he said.
Once the recession hit, things changed and food insecurity climbed nationally — from 36 million people to 50 million in 2007 to 2008. In Tampa Bay the need hasn't wavered since, Mantz said.
"Seven, almost eight years, that number has not gone down even though the economy has improved," he said.
Nearly 25 percent of children in Pinellas County are food insecure, according to Feeding Tampa Bay data. Stacy Chase, 53, doesn't like to admit that three of her grandchildren — ages 1, 3 and 7 — in her care are part of that statistic. But she just lost her job.
On a Sunday morning Chase, stroller in tow, walked to nearby Positive Impact Church on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg. She's looking for vegetables.
That can be a challenge where she lives. There are few grocery stores, and she doesn't have a car.
Even food pantries in St. Petersburg struggle to have fresh produce because they lack the required storage. They mostly give out canned goods and other nonperishables.
But Positive Impact, a small nondenominational church that runs out of a former Chinese restaurant, has a full kitchen and an industrial refrigerator.
That means that along with bread, Chase is able to take home apples, pears and carrots for her grandchildren.
"If it wasn't for this church three Sundays ago, I'm not sure we would have survived," Chase said. "I'm not going to let them go hungry."
Houghton, of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, says her group provides emergency groceries to more than 30,000 people a year.
Jane Trocheck Walker, who directs St. Petersburg pantry Daystar Life Center, says her group also helps thousands annually — but many feel compelled to tell her they're not like "the others" she helps. "I haven't asked for help before," she hears.
"Anybody can be hungry," she said.
Mantz, of Feeding Tampa Bay, works with other charities to deploy mobile pantries — vehicles packed with food — to areas that don't have many brick and mortar locations for assistance. He wants to make that more common because hunger can show up in areas where it hasn't been an issue before.
Whether it's seniors in Sun City Center who lost a spouse and are financially strapped or migrant workers in Wimauma picking crops to scrape by — so many are hungry.
A map like the Network to End Hunger's can at least serve as a guide to where help needs reinforcement, advocates say.
Caitlyn Peacock, a project manager with the Network to End Hunger, travels to the areas shown to have the largest meal gaps, even if the poverty isn't always obvious. She wants to see in person if the need is there. If it is, she'll knock on church doors, trying to build up a network of help herself.
"It can be going on in your own back yard," Peacock said. "Hunger is not about being homeless."
Times photographer Loren Elliott contributed to this story. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.