Burdened pantries rise to meet food shortage

WILDWOOD | Pantries throughout the Diocese of Orlando are doubling efforts to provide food for rising numbers of people as unemployment skyrockets. St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Wildwood and Holy Spirit Parish’s Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF) Mission Market in Lake Wales have been quick to respond to the crisis.

Gerardo “Jerry” de Jesus manages the CCCF Agape Mission Market on Holy Spirit Parish’s campus. “We are getting a lot more people than we used to,” noted de Jesus. “Normally we do about 30 households a day on average. Now we’re doing 50 to 60 and even 70 households per day.” The market is open three days per week.

De Jesus gets most of the pantry food from Feeding Tampa Bay, part of the national Feeding America network, which serves food insecure families in the 10-county area of West Central Florida. Because the Mission Market can’t buy food in bulk from grocery stores anymore, the pantry’s reliance on the food distributor has grown.

In response to CDC restrictions, de Jesus modified operations, going from a choice pantry where clients could walk through and make personal selections to pre-packaged bags of groceries, delivered in a push-market fashion. To minimize contact, bags are brought out in a cart and unloaded by the clients into their vehicles. Carts are washed down after every use. Produce, meat, bread and other items are bagged and clients receive as many bags as needed depending on the number of family members in their households. “A lot of people come in one car because they’re getting a ride,” explained Jerry. He is seeing multiple families in one car more often than not these days.

“People have been really grateful and understanding of the changes,” he said. “A lot of the area food pantries have closed down, so they’re thankful we’re still open.” He acknowledges, “It’s been a challenge for staff, but it’s been good for our mission in helping people in need and getting them through times that are really affecting daily life.”

On the other end of the diocese, the story is similar. Thom Horning helps run St. Vincent de Paul Parish’s Our Lady of Mercy Food Pantry in Wildwood. He and his wife, Betty Anne, arrived from Cleveland 15 years ago and continued volunteering for the food ministry. He says it is simply doing what God asks of all of us. “Holy Thursday, Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, then asked us to go and do likewise. We feel we have to do that and serve our brothers and sisters.” He added, “Food is a big part of our lives – for everyone – both physical and spiritual food. The idea of being a part of a food pantry ministry which is serving both the physical and spiritual needs of everyone whom we serve is very appealing to us.”

Christ is the force that fuels Horning’s mission and he runs a streamlined operation. Volunteers arrive early in masks and gloves to start packing grocery bags. Others guide cars into a neat line and carts are at the ready to be manned by yet more volunteers. “Cars are stretched all the way down the street,” noted Horning. Our pantry opens at 9 a.m.; by 7:30 a.m., there were 30 vehicles in line (April 24). We served 110 households, which is about 275 people.”

Although monetary donations are up and the pantry is also served by Feeding Tampa Bay, like so many other pantry coordinators, Horning is unable to buy food in bulk at the grocery store to nutritionally balance offerings. Instead, he got the word out through MyParish App and St. Vincent de Paul’s parish bulletin, soliciting food donations. “I think people are missing church so much that they want to do something,” said Horning. “The parish set up a drop at church where people can just drive through and drop off food to help us in this emergency situation. Sometimes, we’re getting 1,000 pounds of food a day from parishioners. Some days it’s as much as 2,000 pounds.”

Horning noted, “When Jesus said to help the poor, so often the thing He mentioned first was feeding the poor. It seemed to be really high on his list, so there you go.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic May 6, 2020