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Ghosts and ghouls fight hunger at 'Boo at the Zoo'

Heather Muson, left, Britt Renee, center, and Talia Munson, right, pose at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo during “Boo at the Zoo” in Gainesville, Fla., Oct. 31, 2023. (Azhalia Pottinger/WUFT News)
Heather Muson, left, Britt Renee, center, and Talia Munson, right, pose at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo during “Boo at the Zoo” in Gainesville, Fla., Oct. 31, 2023. (Azhalia Pottinger/WUFT News)

A can of Campbell's tomato soup is handed to Bluey the Dog. Bluey goes to the Boo at the Zoo food drive at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo. He hands it to Sabrina Miller, director of emergency assistance at Catholic Charities. The can is now on its way to fight food insecurity in Alachua County.

With steady inflation raising prices, Director of Development for Catholic Charities Laurie Porter said people in Alachua County have been visiting food banks more frequently than normal.

“About double, actually, of what we’re used to seeing,” Porter said.

The Santa Fe Teaching Zoo has been hosting Boo at the Zoo for 27 years now. Each year, the zoo opens its doors to visitors on the night of Halloween to host a food drive.

Attendees pay for their night’s admission with one canned good or non-perishable food item. This idea was first conceived by Santa Fe students in 1996.

Donations are funneled to Catholic Charities of Gainesville and Saint’s Food Shareat Santa Fe College.

Catholic Charities of Gainesville is a member of the larger organization, Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Augustine.

“Grocery prices are high… and incomes are kind of staying the same,” Porter said. “We’re seeing a lot of younger people coming. People who are going to school, who can't afford to put food on the table. Lots of young families.”

Jade Salamone is the conservation education curator at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo. She said that the Boo at the Zoo food drive helps them live up to their self-proclaimed name, “The Community’s Zoo.”

“We feel like it's our responsibility here at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo to be a resource for our communities,” Salamone said. “We're always wanting to make sure we're enriching our community in any possible way”.

Director of emergency assistance at Catholic Charities, Sabrina Miller, said that a large portion of donations from the event go directly to Catholic Charities in Gainesville.

“We do have different offices in Lake City, Jacksonville and St. Augustine, but all of this stuff that we get here locally stays here locally,” Miller said.

Saint’s Food Share is just as instrumental to the community's battle against food insecurity. Santa Fe student Mikayla Stesney, 19, said that her peers have a heightened need for such services.

“Donating food is important because it closes the bridge between food inaccessibility,” Stesney said. “A lot of students at Santa Fe especially have issues with that because a lot of students here come from low-income backgrounds.”

Jessica Hickman, 24, was born and raised in Ocala. She said that food pantries helped her family during hard times.

“We went to the food pantry at the church sometimes where they would donate,” Hickman said. “Even as we’ve gotten older, my parents would go and pick stuff up sometimes. Just because we would go through hard times sometimes, I don’t feel that life excludes anyone from struggling.”

Featuring dancing, trick-or-treating and some animals; the Halloween-themed event helps focus on helping those in our community, rather than helping ourselves.

Event attendees like Amanda Carver, who was taking her children to the event, exemplified this attitude.

“God blessed me with the means to supply some cans to people who don’t have those means,” Carver said.

“Right now there are a lot of people who are struggling to put food on the table,” Porter said. “Rents are high, utilities are high, the first thing that people start cutting is meals.”

Porter explained that is where food drives like the Boo at the Zoo event come into place. Events like this put food in their pantry so that people can fully utilize the pantry to supplement what food they do have.

“We understand that there are many food-insecure families and individuals throughout Alachua County,” Salamone said. “The need has continued for people to get nourishment and food, especially through the holidays.”

Miller said that working with Catholic Charities has shown her how hunger is an issue that affects everybody. She said there is more out there than people are aware of.

“We didn’t realize the demographics that it affects,” Miller said. “You don’t realize how hungry the population in this community is until you’re doing it all the time.”

Event attendee Maddye Fleming, 31, is an Alachua County resident. She attended the event and shared a similar opinion to Miller. She said that events like this are crucial because of the state of food insecurity in Alachua County.

“We have a huge issue with children and food insecurity in general in our county and outlying areas as well,” Fleming said. “Everyone should try to put forth like $5 worth of cans, I think it is worth it to help our neighbors and community thrive.”

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