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A federal lifeline shrinks as the Pinellas breadline grows

Free Clinic volunteer Carol Magnus packs emergency provisions for clients. Federal cutbacks mean local donations are more crucial.
Free Clinic volunteer Carol Magnus packs emergency provisions for clients. Federal cutbacks mean local donations are more crucial.
Published Sep. 4, 2012

A year ago, the food bank at Religious Community Services got 2.3 million pounds of government food for needy people in the area stretching from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

The allotment has plummeted this year, sending Pinellas County food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries scrambling to line up additional resources, dipping into reserves and, in at least one instance, closing until shelves can be refilled.

There's more bad news. Recently RCS heard that the mid September food shipment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not be arriving.

And Pinellas agencies have learned that they are out of the running for almost half a million dollars in federal emergency food and shelter assistance to help the needy.

The USDA Emergency Food Assistance Program, which supplies staples like pasta, peanut butter and beans to those that assist the poor, benefited from stimulus funding in 2009 and 2010, but supplies have dropped in the last year or so.

"They halved the number of households we can serve, as well as the number and types of items in the (USDA food) bags," said Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg.

"We had been getting six or seven items, protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruit. Sometimes there is milk. We rejoice when there's peanut butter."

The St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which distributes USDA food on Thursdays, ran out in August — a month with five Thursdays — and had to dig into emergency supplies, executive director Beth Houghton said.

RCS, based in Clearwater, has the contract to distribute USDA food to 62 sites in Pinellas County, including the Free Clinic and Daystar and shelters like Safe Harbor, Pinellas Hope and Community Action Stops Abuse. This year, it will have about 750,000 fewer pounds of food to go around, said C.J. Crooks, RCS director of development.

More than ever, Crooks said, RCS is focused on increasing community donations so that it can continue to help the 5,500 people who turn to the agency each month.

"Each person gets about three to four days of food for everyone in their household," said Lisa Matzner, the organization's director of grants development. "It's a combination of USDA and donated food and the food that we purchase to round out that nutritional value."

Lower USDA allocations, aggravated by increased demand, caused St. Giles Emergency Food Pantry in Pinellas Park to close for four days in July. Each quarter, the charity supplements the government rations with donated food. Board member Joanne Adams said the pantry started by St. Giles Episcopal Church served 624 households, or 1,206 people, in July.

In Tarpon Springs, the Shepherd Center has been digging into reserves to buy food, executive director Lisa Hughes said. "It's very important for us to provide nutritionally balanced meals. We are nowhere near closing our doors, but it's been a strain on us. …We've got two pressures, more need and less food."

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The Shepherd Center, which helps people from Dunedin to the Pasco border and already is strained by dwindling resources, is now dealing with an alleged defrauding scheme by a former thrift store manager.

"We're prosecuting to the fullest extent," said board chairwoman Beverley Billiris, adding that the organization has "put things in place so it couldn't happen again."

The center distributes USDA bags and "Pinellas bags," the latter filled with food from the annual postal drive, other donations and items bought with money from grants or raised through the thrift store, Hughes said. It also operates a soup kitchen.

The drop in USDA supplies will make helping the poor even more difficult during months when shelves are practically bare, charities say.

"Typically in October or November, we start to get low. The more we choose to supplement the USDA, the more difficult it will be in October," said Houghton, who added that the Free Clinic provides food to 30,000 people a year, along with 33,000 meals at its Beacon House site near downtown St. Petersburg.

Like other charities, St. Vincent de Paul locations in Clearwater and St. Petersburg have seen an increase in the number of people asking for help. Michael Raposa, executive director in St. Petersburg, said USDA food augments supplies used to prepare meals.

"We usually drop during July and August, but we've averaged 850,'' he said. "It's been an unprecedented summer."

Kris DiGiovanni, executive director at the soup kitchen in Clearwater, has seen a 15 to 20 percent jump in people seeking meals. "I really don't know what to attribute that to. Since the middle of July, we've seen a significant increase in the number of women and children," she said.

In another disturbing trend, DiGiovanni said, more people are asking for financial assistance, which the soup kitchen does not provide. Pinellas organizations that offer help with things like rent, mortgage and utilities learned a few days ago that the county did not qualify for federal funding earmarked for such contingencies.

"The feds raised the bar this year … and it's setting us up for a perfect storm," said Matzner of RCS, noting that one in five families in Pinellas County is on food stamps.

Pinellas did not qualify because its 10 percent unemployment rate was below the 10.7 percent government guideline, according to an email from United Way, which allocates the federal money. At 12.1 percent, the county also fell short of the eligible 15.8 percent poverty rate.

The loss of funding, which brought $487,317 into Pinellas County last year, "is raising grave concerns," Matzner said.

Hughes said the Shepherd Center had hoped to get at least $6,000 this year. "We've got about a $3,000 food bill that we are going to have to find a way for, either through our thrift store or donations," she said.

Daystar also was counting on the money. "Because we didn't know what was happening, we pre-spent some. The need was there," Walker said.

"It's not bad news. It's devastating news."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at (727) 892-2283 or