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Where To Get Food When You Cannot Get It Yourself: Food Banks And Pantries Across Tampa Bay

Canned foods line the shelves of the food pantry on the USF St. Petersburg campus.
Delaney Brown
Food banks and pantries have become the source for food for many people at this time.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are taking a toll on how and where people are getting food. While supplies are sometimes taxed in some grocery stores, people without jobs and without an income still need to eat.

Throughout Tampa Bay, food banks and pantries are attempting to serve the community. Here are some of their stories:

Tampa: Feeding Tampa Bay

Feeding Tampa Bay, the largest food rescue and distribution organization in the region, is seeing a huge increase in demand.

“With our numbers climbing to over 40% more than the 600,000 who normally depend on us, we are thankful for the volunteers who continue to support us and donors who stand by Feeding Tampa Bay,” said Shannon Hannon-Oliviero, the organization’s External Affairs Officer. 

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The group has also delivered more than 8,000 meals to senior sites, deployed weekly mass food distributions in five counties, and created 10,000 to-go meals each week in their Trinity Cafe.

“As a first responder, it is our privilege to address the needs of the ten counties we serve,” Hannon-Oliviero said.

Like most pantries, they’ve also changed some of their programs to reflect Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations.

This includes their food pantry only distributing pre-packaged boxes to those with an appointment, their Trinity Cafe only serving hot to-go meals, and their mobile pantries handing out pre-packaged boxes in a drive-thru method.

In the last two weeks, the organization has also created child meal sites in four counties. These “Breakspot Meals” are open Monday to Friday and provide children with a free meal for the day and breakfast for the next morning..

People can help Feeding Tampa Bay through donations or volunteering by visiting their website.

East Hillsborough County: The United Food Bank of Plant City

Mary Heysek, Executive Director for the United Food Bank of Plant City, says that since the COVID-19 pandemic started, her organizations’ food demand has nearly doubled from around 4,500 people a month to 8,000 people.

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The Food Bank feeds residents of some of the poorer areas of east Hillsborough County, including Plant City, Dover, Thonotosassa, Valrico, Lithia, and Riverview. A recent survey by the organization found that 54% of the people using their services were out of work.

“The majority of our clients are the working poor,” said Heysek. “We have elderly and we have a large Hispanic population that we serve, being in this farm rural area. This area that we serve has the highest poverty rate in Hillsborough County.”

The closing of schools has also led to increased need. When schools aren’t in session, the organization normally serves around 400 lunch bags a week, but Heysek says now they are giving away between 800 and 900 every week.

As a result, even when they purchase food or receive food donations, it does not last very long. Heysek said when they received a pallet of peanut butter -- around 1,000 jars -- it lasted only a week and a half.

At some points, the organization has completely run out of food.

“We've had to close a few days early because we've run out of products and were having trouble getting them,” said Heysek. “Now we've been able to purchase large quantities of food like lots of beans and rice and things like that, but we have to break it down to be able to give it out.”

The United Food Bank of Plant City takes both physical and monetary donations.

New Tampa & Wesley Chapel (Open to All): Bay Chapel Food Pantry

The Bay Chapel Food Pantry doesn’t ask for unemployment information, food stamps, or even people’s names. If someone needs food, the pantry will give it to them.

“We put no pressure on people,” said Lee Schielka, the Pantry’s Community Outreach Director.  “You already have a need, you're coming here. Why do I want to embarrass you and say how much money do you make? What are you going to do with this food? That's totally against my gut. And I'm not going to do it.”

But to Schielka’s shock, the number of people taking food has actually decreased by almost 60%.

“I would never in a million years guess that would be the case,” said Schielka. “I don't know. I can't explain it. We normally do 250 families every Saturday, and since this pandemic hit, our numbers are off. We did 140 this week.”

One possible reason for this decrease is that during the first two weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry did not have meat. Since Bay Chapel relies mostly on grocery stores for their food, when people emptied the stores, there wasn’t anything left for them.

“Our clients, I have to tell you straight up, they're spoiled,” said Schielka. “We normally have enough meat, where they leave with a week's worth of meat and the first time we didn't have meat there was a lot of grumbling in the crowd, which was hard to take. I'm like, ‘What do you want us to do?’

“There's no meat in the grocery store to trickle down... but we did have tons of fresh lettuce, fresh vegetables, and tomatoes, a lot of pasta,” Schielka said. “They still got cereal, they still got stuff you can make.”

The pantry is open every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Christian Brothers Automotive New Tampa, 20303 Trout Creek Drive off Bruce B Downs. The church does not have a location and Christian Brothers allows them to use their facility at no charge. It is unable to be open more often because of the lack of volunteers.

To sign up as a volunteer, visit Bay Chapel Food Pantry’s website or Facebook.

University of South Florida Feed-A-Bull and Support-A-Bull Locations

Even though classes have been moved to online-only, the University of South Florida Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry in Tampa is still available for students registered to any of the USF campuses, as well as faculty and staff.

Though the pantry is now open for only three days, more people are coming to get food.

“We gave over 110 bags [of food] since March 23, totaling over 1,500 pounds,” said Stacey Struhar, the acting director of the Tampa pantry.

Students can grab food once a week from the pantry, including non-perishable items, canned goods, and even fresh produce and dairy products.

Unlike other pantries, Feed-A-Bull was overstocked before the epidemic began and has continued to receive large supplies of food through donations and Feeding Tampa Bay.

“We've been able to continue to provide students with the same amount of food that they would have gotten before, and actually more,” said Stuhar. “Our bags have increased in weight.”

Feed-A-Bull accepts donations online and in person at a cart outside the Patel Global Research Center on the Tampa campus from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

This pantry has relocated to the Student Services breezeway, near the offices of the Registrar and ID Card services, as well as altered hours in order to keep their staff and students safe.

Before the coronavirus hit, USF Sarasota-Manatee had been working to address food insecurity issues on the campus.

“We recognize that food and housing insecurity is not an issue that just overnight popped up due to COVID-19,” said Bart Stucker from the USFSM Office of Student Engagement. “COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue surrounding food and housing and security.”

They opened their new program March 30 and fifteen students used the pantry within the first week.

“It has been a good opportunity for us to kind of springboard this resource and make sure that students are aware of it, and students are utilizing it,” said Allison Dinsmore, Assistant Director of Student Success.

Meanwhile, Joseph Contes of the Supportable Market for USF St. Petersburg has seen an increase in both students and staff seeking food from their market.

“Previously, we were seeing about two to three students per week seeking assistance -- now it’s about eight students seeking assistance per week,” said Contes.

Students at both campuses can request food and hygiene products and visit as often as needed. All three campuses are sanitizing donations before placing them into inventory.

USF Sarasota-Manatee receives help from All Faiths Food Bank and USF St. Pete works with  CUFBA College and University Food Bank Alliance and RCS Pinellas.

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Vanessa Henry is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for spring 2020.