Increased demand and reduced supply challenge north central Florida food banks

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OCALA, Florida – Melissa Terranova climbed out of her large van, which was sandwiched between rows of parked cars in every direction. She wanted food. 

The 57-year-old had never been to a food bank before. But with increased prices at the grocery store and her adult children about to move back home, the twice-a-week food distribution at His Compassion Food Bank in Ocala sounded like a good idea. 

“I’ve been starving,” Terranova said. 

She came to the right place. Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, His Compassion Food Bank distributes food, a trunkload of 80 to 100 pounds, to each family. A line a quarter-mile long of about 100 cars forms from a field to Northeast Jacksonville Road. Volunteers arrive as early as 4 a.m. for the 8 a.m. distribution. By 10 a.m., about 300 families are fed, more than the usual number, the food bank’s resources and development director Joy O’Day said.

But His Compassion Food Bank has canceled Thursday distributions for the last three weeks because of a lack of food supply. Its first Tuesday cancellation came on Nov. 8: There wasn’t enough food for distribution day.

Melissa Terranova, 57, waits in her van for food distribution to start Nov. 1. She recently recovered from rotator cuff surgery and has not been able to get food since her operation. (Emma Behrmann/ WUFT News)

An increase in the number of families in need and a decrease in donated food products are problems food banks face throughout the state and nationwide as a result of inflation. 

Second Harvest Food Bank, a warehousing operation based in Orlando, distributes products to food banks across seven counties, including Marion, Lake, Volusia, Brevard, Orange, Seminole and Osceola. Director of Philanthropy Daniel Samuels said inflation created this twofold issue for food banks. 

“When gas doubles in price and your grocery bill is 8% more than it used to be, it takes so many folks who are doing OK and pushes them over that edge,” Samuels said. “All of a sudden, they can’t afford every bill in front of them.”

The extent of community need has returned to pandemic levels, he said. The food bank tracks the number of people in need through its food locator tool. Before the pandemic, it recorded between 35 and 65 daily users – a number that increased to between 1,300 and 1,500 at the beginning of the pandemic. The number of daily users of the food locator tool leveled off to about 100 in early 2022, but inflation has caused another spike. 

Second Harvest distributes more than 300,000 meals a day through 500 nonprofit organizations, one of which is His Compassion Food Bank. But it still is not enough. 

“We weren’t meeting the need before the pandemic, before inflation, before the hurricane,” Samuels said. “The need in our community is huge. Those numbers have skyrocketed.”

The need has been exacerbated by the rising price of groceries. Spending on groceries has increased by about 12% for consumers in the United States from October 2021 to October 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

At Brother’s Keeper Food Pantry in Ocala, executive director Jason Halstead said the amount of food the pantry distributes has doubled from last year, but donations have remained stagnant.

“When the amount being donated is the same, and your outgoing food is twice what it was, obviously, we are hurting,” Halstead said. “There’s definitely a deficit there.” 

This deficit led Brother’s Keeper to limit the distribution of two, pre-filled bags of food per family once every two months instead of once a month. Its supply of donated food from Publix and Blessed Trinity Catholic Church and school goes fast in the winter months. Elderly snowbirds who live on fixed incomes return to the state and need food assistance, he said. 

When His Compassion Food Bank does have food, containers brim with loaves of bread, muffins and desserts. Volunteers divided these into boxes for families in need Nov. 1. (Emma Behrmann/ WUFT News)

An increased need intensifies supply issues – something food banks like Second Harvest notice as they distribute to multiple organizations. 

Second Harvest purchases food directly from manufacturers by truckload. Its fleet of semitrucks, 100,000-square-foot warehouse and purchasing power – comparable with that of a grocery store chain – helps ensure a supply of food. But higher gas prices have caused the food bank’s operating costs to increase, and supply chain problems have resulted in decreased donations from its retail partners. 

“We have to rely on the community support and the community stepping up during these times because we can’t afford to do it otherwise,” Samuels said.

His Compassion Food Bank’s food supply is completely reliant on community support and so are its operations. It does not purchase any food, and its volunteers do not earn a single penny.

“Because of the high food prices, we don’t get as many donations,” O’Day said. “The places that used to send us food don’t because they can’t afford to put the gas into the trucks.” 

In the warehouse at 2000 NE 78th St., volunteers like Mia Rivers package desserts, bread and drinks to be loaded into families’ cars. Even without distribution on Tuesday, she rationed and bagged canned sodas at 7 a.m. Beverages were one of the only items available that morning. 

“It’s disappointing,” Rivers said. “People look forward to this, and it was hard to turn people away.”  

The food bank sees return families. Margie Bartley, a volunteer at His Compassion Food Bank, knows them best. She records the zip codes and the number of family members for each car. 

Every family receives a box of food stocked with a protein, milk, vegetables, drinks, bread and sometimes sanitizing products. His Compassion Food Bank does not limit the number of times a family can receive free food. But since the food supply has dropped, the food bank has posted cancellation notices on Facebook and on its website. The sign out front reads “Closed Tues Nov 8.”

The sign on the side of Northeast Jacksonville Road notifies people in need that His Compassion Food Bank will not be giving out food on Nov. 8. Cars rolled into the parking lot anyway, and volunteers had to turn people away. (Emma Behrmann/ WUFT News)

When His Compassion Food Bank does not have enough food, the impact snowballs, O’Day said. About 1,200 people are left without food. Also cut are the 152 agencies that visit His Compassion on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to pick up food for their own locations.  

The food bank mainly services Marion County, but some of the organizations it provides food to are in Alachua, Levy, Gilchrist, Citrus, Sumter and Lake counties – so the effect ripples throughout north central Florida. 

“This whole thing started to feed 30 families,” O’Day said. “Now, we feed thousands of families. It has just grown and grown and grown.” 

Restocking the shelves will take time, she said. The food goes out faster than it comes in. 

“We always just hope and pray that God will take care of it,” O’Day said. “He has seen us through days like this before, and we’ll get through this one.”

About Emma Behrmann

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

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