We live in a warm and sunny paradise. There is no place for hunger. Yet hunger is here.
There are about 164,000 people who are “food insecure” in Charlotte, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Lee Counties. That means they often don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
There are many reasons for this. Often, it's an issue of making ends meet, in the face of life emergencies. Our clients may have just lost a job, be unemployed or underemployed. They may have had an accident. They may be battling illness, struggling to live on a fixed income, dealing with the death of a loved one, or divorce. About 54,800 of them are children. Here are some of their stories:
When Joann spoke to us, it was just a few days after her husband died. She volunteers at a food bank pantry at a local church in Fort Myers, but now she’s become a client. “I’m here because I have a hard time making ends meet,” Joann said. “I have a cleaning business, and I have a few clients. I could use a few more.” She rattled off some of the bills she pays: rent, electricity, cable, phone, doctor’s bills, vet bills. She sends money to her two young adult children up north. “By the time I get done, I don’t have enough for a lot of things,” Joann said. Like food, for example.
Steve bent his thin frame over a table at a Lehigh Acres food pantry and signed his name so he could receive his share. He wore dark sun glasses and his voice shook a bit when he spoke.He has a brain tumor and can’t work. He has seizures and balance issues, so he can’t drive. He can’t afford his medication at $400 per month. “I’ve been homeless several times. It’s very scary,” he said. Yet Steve’s attitude is good. “I wake up every morning, two feet on the ground. It's a good start, he said.
Mike, a single father with two young sons, stopped by a pantry in Naples recently to pick up some food. He had recently lost his job. Every bit counts, he said, especially because I'm in between jobs right now. I'm trying to get everything back on pace. The food he receives helps a lot, he said. “You’re saving money and you’re
worried enough already, as it is, to penny-pinch and try to make ends meet.
Mike said he was struggling. "But you've got to think positive and you’ve got to look for it for yourself,” he said. “You can’t just sit on your behind and not do anything.”
A couple of weeks later, things were looking up again. Mike got a new job.
Sharon stood in line with the others at a Lehigh Acres mobile pantry, waiting for a share of the produce, bread, peanut butter, beans and frozen foods. She works in home health care and her hours have been cut. “I’ve got to take care of these children,” she said of her teenaged son and daughter. “Try to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths.” She can’t always make it to the mobile pantry, but it helps when she can, Sharon said. “You guys are a godsend.”
Laura and her mother Inez were at a mobile pantry held at the Immokalee Sports Complex. Laura said the food they receive helps enable her to go to college. Books cost a lot, said Laura, left, who attends Florida Southwestern College and studies criminal justice. "Instead of using money for food, we can use it for my school."
At a mobile pantry held recently by the food bank at a Fort Myers church, a record 150 families came through the pantry line in 40 minutes. Sergio, a Marine Corps veteran, got two bags of food. “Right now, I’m going through a small hardship,” he said. “I’m currently not making enough to make it.”
Rosa, 10, and her little brother Juan, 7, came with their parents to a food bank mobile pantry in Immokalee. "We only have a little bit of food. We need it to eat everyday," she explained. Does that mean she is hungry sometimes? Rosa nodded.
Joe arrived in Fort Myers with his wife, he had just $150 in his wallet. The couple settled in Lehigh Acres. "Social Security told me how much I can make," he said. "That's what we're living on."
He came to a Lehigh Acres church, one of Harry Chapin Food Bank's partner agencies, for food. He still does. "When I first had to collect food, I had tears in my eyes," he said. "So many times it's saved us."
Now Joe also volunteers at the church.
“Trust me. I've been a taxpayer. I've been a worker since I've been 16-17 years old. I'm 65 years old. I appreciate you doing programs like this. You sure helped us. God, please you've helped us. You have no idea."
Marie, left, an Immokalee mobile pantry with bags of food and gratitude. "The things you give, people need it. If you give it for free, it's a good thing. They really appreciate it. I hope you come (back) always - if you can."
Sandra of Fort Myers said she goes to mobile food pantries as often as she can. "I work. I've just got so many bills," said Moore, who has a job as a secretary. "I gotta manage - with the help of you guys," she said. "Everything goes up except paychecks."
Anna came to the Harry Chapin Food Bank mobile pantry in Naples to get food for her mother. "She uses everything they give her, all the time," Anna said.
Meanwhile, Ramon (right) came to the pantry because his small Social Security payment and part-time job at a roofing company aren't enough to make ends meet. "It's impossible," he said. "Too many expenses."
Diane, a nurse, stopped by a mobile pantry at Golden Gate Community Center recently to pick up some produce, bread and canned goods. She was still wearing her uniform. She has three teen-age boys and a six-year-old to feed, and she was struggling. “The pantry gets empty pretty fast, Sandy said. "It helps, it's a big help."
The line of people snaked down the sidewalk, past the walls of the school building, past a chain link fence, to the street.
On this muggy evening, at least 200 individuals and families, including many children, stood patiently outside Pinecrest Elementary School in Immokalee. They were waiting for food to be distributed from a mobile pantry set up by the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. Streets in the surrounding neighborhood were filled with ramshackle trailers.
Beatrice was one of those in line. She works hard, cooking, cleaning and waiting tables at a local restaurant. But she can’t make enough to feed her family. The mobile pantry provides what she can’t. So she was happy to stand in the heat with her two daughters, Valentina, 5; Clorana, 9; and son Isereol, 2.
“It’s good. It’s helping,” she said, while Valentina happily clutched a bag of carrots.
Beatrice is far from alone in needing to supplement the amount of food her wages can put on her family’s table. Nationally, in the wake of the Great Recession, statistics show that one in six Americans struggles with hunger.
In Southwest Florida, the need is still great.
Harry Chapin Food Bank partners with and provides food for more than 150 agencies across Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. Mobile pantries are also an efficient and effective way to get food to those areas where it is most needed. The mobile pantry program, established in July 2010, is reaching 250-300 households at each site. Households receive $60-plus worth of food.
At Pinecrest Elementary, two food bank trucks set up in the parking lot, loaded with fresh produce, frozen meats, and other food items. They included watermelons, onions, bags of apples, some cereal, bread, rice and beans. Trucks carry an average of 14,000 pounds of food for each distribution.
The food was gone in 90 minutes.
If you would like to help out at a mobile pantry in your area, please contact Tanya Phillips, our volunteer manager at (239) 334-7007 extension 141 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every Little Bit Helps
Her name was Misty. She looked pale and tired. She sat in the crowded sanctuary of First Community Congregational Church pantry in Lehigh Acres, holding her son, Junior, close. They were all waiting for their number to be called so they could get food from the church food pantry.
Besides Junior 3, who is autistic, she cares for three other children at home. “My husband is the only one working,” she said. “I can’t go work myself.”
The family needs the food “because it’s hard, hard financially,” she said. “It helps us out a great deal when we run low on food again. It eases our stress a little bit knowing there is food in the house. Every little bit helps.”
The Bills Must Be Paid
Frank Gonzalez drove tractor-trailer trucks for 27 years. Now he’s disabled and wears a pacemaker. It was hard for a man used to working 50-hour weeks to suddenly go down to nothing, he said. “For the first couple of months, I had the cleanest house in the world.”
Money is tight. His income has been cut by two-thirds. “I didn’t know this existed,” he said of the food pantry. ”My landlord told me.” His nephew, Jayln, 4, sat beside him, all smiles and licking a lollipop.
Gonzalez also feeds a son and grandson. “The less I buy in food, the more I have money for other things,” like paying bills, he said.
Worried About the Future
Wendy sat in a pew at the church pantry, waiting with her daughter, Andrea, 3. Wendy had a rolling portable shopping basket to carry the food she hoped to collect. She has another child at home. “Only my husband works,” she said. “We pay a lot of rent. We have much bills.” As she worried about their future, Andrea, aware only of the present, smiled and played.