CCCF food ministry expands into Marion County

Nov 9, 2023
Almost 200 families received needed food at the mobile food drop at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Candler, southeast of Ocala. Marion county is ranked the second highest “food desert” in Central Florida. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

CANDLER | It is 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the line of cars is already more than 100 cars deep. By morning’s end, there would be more than 200, representing 754 individuals. It is the second mobile food drop offered by parishioners of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Candler, a small town southeast of Ocala.

In line were people still dealing with hurricane damage, some who lost work during the pandemic and others battling sickness or disability.

According to Feeding America, they represent a few of more than 3 million Florida residents considered to be food-insecure. Second Harvest Food Bank is a member of Feeding America and ranks Marion County the second highest food-insecure county in the state.

Parochial administrator Father Stephen (Seno) Ogonwa wants to help. “This is a community of love and they put that love into helping the suffering,” he said. “Our mission is to show them that we love them and we want their good… Our hearts are full of love, like our Mother.”

Wondering how he could help, Catholic Charities of Central Florida director of food ministries, Juan Vega, reached out to the parish to harmonize.

Rickey and his dog Gracey  arrived at the mobile food drop at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Candler to pick up some food. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

“I went to visit office manager Lyndy Garrett and we hit it off right away,” recalled Vega. With a perfect set up for a mobile food drop, they planned one in August 2023. Vega also paired pantry food intake with Second Harvest Food Bank, insuring service to more of the nearby vulnerable population.

Outreach has nearly doubled. “We serve roughly 30 families a week,” noted Garrett. She is thrilled to have Catholic Charities’ support. Noting her parish has only 200 active parishioner families she said, “We are small, but mighty” and she wasn’t kidding. More than a quarter of those parishioners volunteered for the food drop. “Now we’ve got more food to distribute, and we can feed more families,” she said.

Angela learned about the food drop on social media. Her husband had a heart attack. She lost hours at work after COVID. Expenses became greater. Income became limited. “This is a blessing for my family,” she said.

Also in line was Rickey, who came with his dog, Gracey. Ricky is deaf and works as a handyman, also taking side jobs to survive. He saw the sign in front of the church and turned around. “I’m having a hard life, that’s all,” he said. And he’s not alone.

Sixty parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary help load food into vehicle of families who are hungry. The mobile food drop organized by Catholic Charities of Central Florida helped feed almost 200 families. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Verda also saw the signs. The retired nurse is out of her home because a tree fell and crushed most of the rooms. Black mold crept in. For now, she’s relying on friends until repairs can be made, and finds hope at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish.

Volunteer Maryann Schrader showed up with her mother, a parishioner since the early 80s when the parish began. “It’s helping your neighbors,” she said. “There’s no shame. Rent and utilities have gone up and so there’s less left for food.”

As Catholic Charities expands its services into “food deserts”, Deacon Gary Tester, president, hopes the organization can make a dent in supporting communities across central Florida. He noted Candler is perfectly located to serve southeast Marion County.

“We are happy to provide what is necessary to meet the needs of people who are hungry,” said Deacon Tester. “This is a great first step by boosting the food ministry at Immaculate Heart. We will continue to work with Second Harvest to minister to those in need.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, November 8, 2023