Florida Food Banks Suffer As State Grant Runs Out

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Sharon Bryant furrows her eyebrows and looks down trying to remember the last time she wasn’t hungry.

For the past two years, Bryant, 54, and her friends have waited in line every second Thursday of the month for a bag of canned vegetables, frozen meat, bread and a couple desserts.

Early morning outside Ornan Lodge No. 117, they sit in fold-up chairs alongside nearly one hundred Williston residents waiting for the double doors to swing open at 1 p.m.

“Some people think they’re too cute to get up here and stand in line,” Bryant said.

But the mother of three said she has no shame waiting four hours for groceries that last her family two days.

Bryant walks miles home each time with lighter and lighter bags as more people like Bryant are showing up hungry outside Ornan Lodge No. 117 and other food pantry locations.

Since early March, local food banks saw a rapid decline in food supply from Florida’s government grant program, while the numbers of people they feed continues to rise.

Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill, The Emergency Food Assistance Program allocated $15 million to Florida in 2014, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

The state government uses the federal grant to purchase canned food and frozen meat and decides which food banks receive the supply based off the bidding process.

For the 2015 fiscal year, three food banks bid for the grant by submitting the required 70-page proposal.

Gainesville’s Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, which served five counties for 2014, was not one of them.

“I think (USDA) have made the decision based on what they know,” Bread of the Mighty Food Bank CEO and president Marcia Conwell said. “I don’t think the government understands the issue of hunger.”

Conwell said Bread of the Mighty Food Bank stopped all USDA food drop-offs in their five surrounding counties four months ago. The nonprofit organization completes two separate drops for distributing food — USDA supply and locally donated food.

“It took a nosedive from 68 percent to 14 percent to nothing,” she said.

To put that in perspective, Bryant and other Williston residents went from receiving about 16 cans of food to four items until July.

Bread of the Mighty Food Bank director of community outreach Loretta Griffis said the people who previously received food from the USDA drops are starting to come to the mobile pantries.

The night before the November drop at Ornan Lodge No. 117, Griffis received over one hundred calls asking if they were coming.

When Griffis arrived at the site at 9:45 a.m. the next day, over 100 people were in line – more than she had ever seen at that time.

By the end of the day, 600 Williston residents walked, biked and carpooled to receive one bag of groceries.

“What we have in these areas is food insecurity,” Griffis said. “They might eat a piece of toast for breakfast, but not know if they’ll have anything for supper.”

Though, now with the 2015 bidding contract in place, the food bank will receive USDA food supply come January, but only for two of their previous five counties.

food insecurity
Mary Francis/WUFT News

Farm Share, a nonprofit organization based in Homestead with four separate Florida locations, won six of the 17 counties from their bid, including Alachua County. Bread of the Mighty Food Bank will be a sub-distributor under Farm Share.

President, founder and CEO of Farm Share Patricia Robbins said the bidding process is “very complicated.”

“It’s only a supplement; it’s not meant to keep the ball rolling,” Robbins said of the USDA food supply.

Farm Share plans to deliver to the Gainesville food bank once a month. However, Robbins said Farm Share never knows when the canned goods will come in from Tallahassee until they’re already on the way.

“We’re at the mercy of the donors,” Robbins said.

Supervisor of TEFAP in Florida’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Andy Windsor said the amount of food supply each county receives depends on its annual poverty rates.

“There hasn’t been a moment where they weren’t getting food,” Windsor said.

He said the price of food has increased, but because it is a grant program, its budget will not expand as the need expands.

Aside from the federal grant, Bread of the Mighty Food Bank also receives food from local groceries and bakeries. Publix is its largest retailer.

Conwell said all the donors are aware of the decline in government supply, but they can only give so much.

Though, the organization recently received 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes from a local farmer. She said that doesn’t happen often.

During the winter season, farmer donations become even more sparse.

Williston residents held each other’s spots in line at Ornan Lodge No. 117 that November Thursday, as they took turns packing their backpacks full of potatoes.

Mobile food truck driver Anthony Jones, 46, remembers another time a farmer dropped off his extra crops.

“They were the sweetest peaches anyone had ever tasted,” Jones said. “When you bit in, the juices would just run down your face.”

Jones, who has been working for Bread of the Mighty Food Bank for about three years, receives waves, applause and shouted greetings every time he pulls up to drop off food.

“Start off feeding them, but we call them like family members,” he said. “I call some of the old ladies grandma and auntie.”

More than once, Jones has been approached outside of food pantry drop-offs.

Those who made it out of the cycle of poverty — they recognize him and insist to buy him dinner.

But on November’s second Thursday he is asked by all his grandmas and aunties, “When will you be back?”

“It’s the first thing and the last thing in their mind every day,” Jones said. “Am I going to eat today?”

About Mary Francis

Mary is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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