On Thursday, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe announced that for the city of Gainesville, Sept. 15 was to be known as Hunger Action Day.
At the local Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, the mayor attended as a guest of honor what was a celebratory event to thank the community for its involvement. Attendees paused their eating to listen to the mayor’s words.
But after he finished speaking and after he had left the event, the residents stayed seated and continued to eat. For some, this was a celebration of the food bank and of the community, for others, this was their dinner.
The announcement of Hunger Action Day has been one of the most direct actions of the city of Gainesville in dealing with food insecurity. On Thursday, there were more volunteers than employees of the food bank organizing the event and serving food to attendees.
The proclamation came largely through the efforts of the Bread of The Mighty CEO, Marcia Conwell, who said she constantly has gone to the local government for assistance. A few months ago, she said, she approached the mayor with the idea, and he gave it the green light.
“If Bread of The Mighty goes away, the city better be able to pull up their bootstraps,” Conwell said to the mayor. “We’re doing your work.“
The only local government assistance comes in the form of the Community Agency Partnership Program grants, which are asked for by agencies that try to fight against poverty, not just food banks, and awarded by the city. For Bread of The Mighty, it was awarded last October, although there is no guarantee they will get it this year.
Feeding America, a national nonprofit organization that is a network of food banks, declared September to be Hunger Action Month. For the city of Gainesville, this meant a particularly important month for Bread of The Mighty Food Bank.
City spokesman Bob Woods said the public school system and various organizations like the United Way of North Central Florida play a large role in fighting food insecurity, but the city has no direct influence; it’s involvement is minimal, he said.
Bread of The Mighty is one of 13 food banks in the state of Florida and the only one near Gainesville, providing for the five surrounding counties. In the country, an average of one in six children are food insecure – in Gainesville, one in four children.
“I went to them numerous times, and they say their budget – it’s just not in their budget,” Conwell said.
Jeannie LePage, an employee of the food bank who also runs Gainesville Harvest, another nonprofit under the Bread of The Mighty umbrella, said the CAPP grant awarded her $30,000. To a relatively large operation, all this covers is her salary – everything else is donations.
She said she works 30 hours a week, but only because her husband volunteers for 20. She said she doesn’t mind because Conwell is caring and passionate, and working for such a Christian woman inspires her.
This calendar year alone, Bread of The Mighty is projected to move nine million pounds of food from the main warehouse on NW 10 Avenue, Conwell said. From their numbers, there was an 85 percent increase of “people in need” this year, she said.
Once a year, Bread of The Mighty holds a fundraiser that becomes their lifeblood. They procure backing for the whole year from companies, and effectively gain their operating capital.
They get their food and money from local businesses. Some donate food, some donate money. They send requests for grants to these places, and if they’re lucky, the grants get approved.
At the event, large and local restaurants alike provided the food and the manpower to serve it. In the server line, Tameka Goodwin. a Nationwide Insurance employee, smiled as she served coleslaw – she, like most others there, was a volunteer.
“They just take it for granted that we’ll always be here. I mean we could – we are driven by the community, by grants, by fundraisers,” Conwell said. “You’re never OK. I mean, our numbers are up 85 percent, we barely make it.”