How north central Florida food banks are faring

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Twice a week, volunteers at the Doyle C. Crosby Food Pantry greet visitors with hugs and occasional cheek kisses. They distribute boxes of Raisin Bran, bags of pasta, packs of toothbrushes and bars of soap to residents of Levy County from a local church.

Charlotte Cox, a visitor of the food pantry since January 2019, said the volunteers at Doyle Crosby show more compassion than other pantries she has been to. 

“The people here are the best people ever,” Cox said. “I’ve been places where people are so impatient. I like when people are compassionate and don’t rush me.”

The food pantry distributes pantry goods and hygiene necessities from the First United Methodist Church in Williston, Florida, every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon. The statewide average food insecurity rate is 12%.

Most north central Florida counties surpass that threshold. 

In line with its motto, “Walk in Love,” the church treats guests with kindness and shies away from passing judgment. 

food insecurity
Nancy Vallario grins ear to ear about the dozens of boxes of Rice Krispies donated earlier in the morning. (Zoey Robinson/WUFT News)

Volunteers who help run the pantry include Carol Glass, a retired schoolteacher, and Nancy Vallario, a retired prison ward. A chairperson of the pantry for over five years, Glass loves guiding members of her community through the food pantry.

The pantry makes an active effort to have caring people hand out food for this exact reason. Vallario said it’s important to keep it this way. 

“You just don’t know what people are going through,” Vallario said. 

Some visitors don’t just come for the food. They show up for the company. Vallario will talk to residents for as long as they want, she said, because she recognizes struggles that happen behind closed doors and wants to be there for others in any way she can.

In 2020, 1,065 bags of food were handed out and served 3,188 people. Twenty-seven bags is the record total given in one day. The average number of bags distributed in a day ranges five to 20. 

A typical bag contains items like spaghetti sauce, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, cereal, bars of soap and canned goods. Other items like eggs, meat and feminine products are provided if available. 

The church also offers assistance by providing gas for those with a job interview or doctor appointment out of town. 

The pantry benefits largely from donations, including extra items people bought on sale at grocery stores. Church members who pass away sometimes leave behind money for the pantry. Contributions like this have helped the pantry expand operations and buy equipment such as a fridge and freezer to store cold items like meat and eggs. 

But other pantries in and around north central Florida aren’t as well-stocked.

Carol Neal, the director of Christian Food Pantry in Lady Lake, Florida, has witnessed a decrease in produce supply. Another pantry director for Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, in Gainesville, said decreased supply comes as demand at pantries is expected to jump in the coming three months. Listen to their stories firsthand:

In 2019, Williston had a poverty rate of 25.7% and the median household income was $41,574. Multiple north central Florida counties rank among the highest in the state for food insecurity.

In Levy County, 16.4% of residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from, ranking the seventh most food insecure statewide. Dixie (No. 3), Bradford (No. 8) and Putnam (No. 6) all rank within the top ten most food insecure counties in the state. 

Food security is when a person has reliable access to food to live a healthy life, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. Food is a basic life necessity that should be available at ease to communities. To combat food insecurity, food banks are in place for easy access to affordable or free food. 

General trends show that over the past three years, the percentage of people who identify as food insecure in north central Florida has decreased. But there are community members who are still struggling. 

 

“It’s a big struggle for me and my kids because sometimes I don’t know if I’m going to eat, but I make sure they do,” Marcella Venuto, a visitor of the pantry, said.  

Venuto recently lost her job at Winn-Dixie because of a failed background check. Venuto was convicted of a felony nearly a decade ago but is still facing the consequences.  

“The more we help others the better America will become,” she said. 

Cox, who also visits the pantry, said that programs like this are extremely helpful to the community. 

“I’m not sure if everyone knows about places like this,” Cox said. “I wish more people knew.”

The pantry takes a lot of time and energy to upkeep, Glass said. She goes to the Bread of the Mighty to buy items like loaves of bread and packages of ham steaks. 

“We couldn’t do what we do without Bread of the Mighty,” Glass said. When food supplies are scarce there, she goes to budget stores such as Dollar Tree to fill in the gaps. 

Bread of the Mighty Food Bank primarily serves Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette and Levy counties by providing affordable products for smaller food pantries and for community members. It operates under Feeding America, which is a national food bank corporation. Feeding America has regional locations that help provide food for Florida residents, including Feeding Northeast Florida is a regional food bank for Baker, Bradford, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Johns Counties.  

Glass said, “I’m very thankful to be a part of something that helps the community.”

To find the nearest food pantries to you, visit foodpantries.org

About Zoey Robinson

Zoey is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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