June 15, 2008

Helping Agencies Need Help

By Donna Wright, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.

Jun. 15--MANATEE -- As gas and food prices soar, area food pantries are struggling to feed the hungry.

"It's not just the working class people who are asking for help, it's middle class families too, " says Cindy Sloan, manager of The Food Bank of Manatee run by Meals on Wheels Plus. "People facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, people who have been laid off or else their hours have been cut. Families who can't make ends meet."

The Salvation Army in Bradenton is deluged with requests for help, says Major Robert Pfeiffer.

"Our lobby is filled with people looking for bags of groceries, people who were working last year but this year have no jobs. They are desperate, and some are angry. By the time they get to us, they have been to most other agencies in town and found no help."

In years past, the food bank, soup kitchens and shelters have relied on the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive held on the Saturday before Mother's Day to get them through until holidays.

But donations were way down this year, says Nancy Thurkettle, coordinator of the drive held by the National Association of Letter Carriers, Friendly City Branch 1753 which represents Bradenton postal workers.

"We usually collect about 130,000 pounds of food, but this year we got just over 80,000," said Thurkettle.

The Bradenton union voted this year to distribute its collection to three groups: St. Joseph Catholic Church food pantry got 61,000 pounds, the food bank got 21,000 pounds and Our Daily Bread soup kitchen got 2,600 pounds.

The food bank also got another 60,000 pounds from the postal drive sponsored by the union chapter representing letter carriers at the Anna Maria Island, Palmetto, Ellenton and Parrish post offices.

In years past, proceeds from the two postal drives were often double what was collected this year, says Ellen Campbell, director of Meals on Wheels. Worse yet, those donations were short on peanut butter, canned tuna and meat.

Even the surplus commodities supplied through the federal government are short on protein, said Sloan, who coordinates distribution of food bank supplies to a network of more than 70 social service agencies and feeding programs throughout the county.

Sloan needs the help of more than 300 volunteers to keep the network running.

"We have agencies in every ZIP code in the county, like Hope Family Services, the Sheriff's Youth Ranch, Manasota SOLVE and area churches," said Sloan. "And they all need help. We feed people all of the way out in Duette and Myakka."

The food bank acts as a central warehouse. Partner agencies submit requests for emergency food baskets to Sloan on a detailed form that specifies family size, income and needs.

Volunteers pack the bags, which are then distributed to the agencies who deliver them to the needy.

A recent survey revealed that 40 percent of the families served through the food bank network have at least one working member in the household. One-third were forced to choose between buying food and paying for medical care, and 38 percent of those fed through the food bank were children.

The network wouldn't work without cooperation and sharing, said Sloan. It's like a moveable feast -- sometimes lean, sometimes plentiful -- that travels to those most in need.

For example, Sloan recently got a call from an area baker who had 200 carts of bread he couldn't use.

Sloan was expecting a few hundred loaves of bread, but when the carts arrived, she found she had thousands of loaves, enough to fill nearly half of her freezer.

She called Deacon Bob Nimon who runs the food pantry at St. Joseph Catholic Church, which distributes food and clothing directly to families.

"What a blessing," Nimon said. "We were short on bread. We needed it. God provides."

Our Daily Bread, supported by several area churches, serves an average of 215 meals a day. Our Daily Bread operates on faith too, says Mary DeLazzer, who runs the soup kitchen. "Somehow our needs always seem to get filled."

Over the years, DeLazzer has come to expect the unexpected.

"You never know when or where food is going to come from," DeLazzer said. She is frugal to the bone, using carcasses for stock once the meat is gone. "Sen. (Mike) Bennett bought us a pig at the fair. Somebody else came in a while back and asked if we wanted 45 frozen turkeys that had started to thaw. We had to cook them right away. I called in everybody I knew, and we cooked turkeys all night long. We had turkey salad, turkey soup, turkey tetrazzini, turkey casseroles for days."

But despite such gifts, escalating need is depleting shelves at a rapid rate, DeLazzer said.

The Salvation Army is now feeding upwards of 14,000 meals each month, says Pfeiffer. "Our client base is up 15 percent over last year, while our donations are down 10 percent. Being one of the front-line agencies, that is a cause of great concern for us."

St. Joe's pantry reports requests for help are up 17 percent for the first quarter over the same period last year.

"So far we have been able to handle it without making any adjustments," Nimon said. "Most of our food comes from church drives. We can ask the people from the parish for peanut butter or whatever we need. We also get donations from stores. We are holding our own, but it is pushing us."

Our Daily Bread served 7,700 lunches in May alone and the dwindling pantry means that food bags distributed through the soup kitchen cover just one or two meals rather than three or four as in the past, DeLazzer said.

She counts on the food bank for help when supplies run low.

All of the food collected through the postal drive -- as well as the government surplus food -- is distributed free to the food bank's partner agencies, said Kristen Theisen, Meals on Wheels Development director.

Partner agencies like Our Daily Bread pay 18 cents per pound for food collected from sources like the Meals on Wheels food drives to cover the food bank's costs, Theisen said. The food bank also purchases supplemental food (meats, diapers, baby food, etc.) when it is not available through donations.

In 2007 alone, the food bank, which is a separate operation from Meals on Wheels home delivery program, distributed more than 1 million pounds of food.

"The food bank has been a godsend for Our Daily Bread," DeLazzer said. "We are extremely grateful."

But keeping the food bank's network running is a mounting challenge, said Campbell.

"We have been lucky because I have an ambitious food bank director Joe Mercado, who is pounding the pavement, talking to grocers and growers who have stepped forward to help us. But the shelves are emptying faster than ever," said Campbell. "We are not desperate, but we are hitting critical lows. I hope we don't get too desperate."

How to help

The Food Bank of Manatee County/Meals on Wheels Plus

Mail checks, with "food bank" in memo line, to 811 23rd Ave. E., Bradenton, 34208. Call 747-3663 to donate food, volunteer or sponsor a food drive. Select items to donate on the Virtual Food Bank Web site at www.foodbankofmanateecounty.org

Salvation Army of Bradenton

Mail checks to 1204, 14th St. W., Bradenton, 34205. Call 748-5110 to donate food or volunteer.

St. Joseph Catholic Church Food Pantry

Send checks to 2704 33rd Ave. W. Bradenton. Call 756-3732 to donate food.

Our Daily Bread

Send checks to P.O. Box 9544, Bradenton, 34206. To donate food call 745-2992.

Food items most needed

Baby food


Tuna fish and canned meat and fish

Peanut butter



Canned soup and beef stew

Macaroni and cheese

Dry and canned beans

Canned fruit and vegetables

100 percent fruit juice


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