Distribution changes cause angst among smaller food pantries.
Delores Barfield, a former forklift operator at Tropicana, relies on the fresh produce she picks up at the Woodland Community Church’s food pantry.
Since she retired three years ago, Barfield has used the pantry for both herself and her neighbors in need.
“It’s a big help,” she said. “I share my food with other people who can’t get out. I go out in my truck and deliver it.”
As long as the food is available, Barfield is satisfied.
Whether Barfield and those like her stay satisfied is being questioned now in Manatee County. Over the past year, logistical changes have occurred in the way food is delivered for those in need.
In July 2018, Feeding America affiliate Feeding Tampa Bay began distributing donated food from donor affiliates, such as Publix. It was a task previously handled in Manatee County by Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee through its Food
Bank of Manatee.
On Oct. 1, Feeding Tampa Bay also assumed distribution of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program in Manatee County. That program also had been handled by Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee, which had contracts with Feeding Tampa Bay and the USDA. It lost both contracts after Feeding Tampa Bay decided to take over its own distribution last year and again when USDA contractor and Feeding America affiliate Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers awarded the USDA contract to Feeding Tampa Bay Oct. 1.
Woodland Food Pantry Coordinator Gigi Easton said there have been challenges with the changes, but Feeding Tampa Bay has worked with her to meet the pantry’s needs. For example, it provided equipment — such as a refrigerator, a pallet jack and a dolly — to help with receiving fresh produce weekly.
She wasn’t sure how the first USDA distribution would go Oct. 3 because of availability of volunteers and quantities of food, but everything worked out. Easton said she’s still determining whether the weekly deliveries will be good for the pantry, but she said she is optimistic.
“At the end of the day, what concerns me is getting the food to the people,” she said.
Easton also worries about how the changes will affect her startup pantry at Bethany Baptist Church in Myakka City. Her smaller, once-a-month pantry isn’t equipped with space or volunteers to handle weekly USDA deliveries.
Among those who have experienced problems is Rose Riggle of the Myakka Giving Alliance, which feeds 100 families once a month. Although Riggle said she is grateful for the food she receives and that Feeding Tampa Bay has provided both a refrigerator and freezer for her pantry, the amount of food delivered and the logistics have been a problem.
She has had a hard time getting canned vegetables, which are well-suited for her pantry’s format. The last order she made with Feeding Tampa Bay for 10 boxes of baked goods included five boxes of Thousand Island dressing.
“The majority of the food I get still comes from the Food Bank of Manatee,” Riggle said.
She said she no longer accepts fresh produce from Feeding Tampa Bay because she would get a pallet with only one or two types of vegetables.
“I can’t support our clientele in the way we want to support them [now],” Riggle said. “If something happens to the Food Bank of Manatee, I don’t know what we are going to do.”
Riggle is also challenged logistically. The Alliance went from getting USDA food once every two months to now needing a volunteer available once per week to accept deliveries. The USDA deliveries, which are free, cannot be combined with other deliveries. That format is tough on an all-volunteer force, she said.
“We want to work with Feeding Tampa Bay,” Riggle said. “If we don’t, we may not be able to feed the people here.”
East County resident Jim Shilling, who oversees the food pantry at 53rd Avenue Church of Christ said the church’s pantry has doubled to feed about 3,000 people per month since he took over a year ago. Over two days per week, it distributes a total of about 17,000 pounds of food.
The pantry has a contract with Feeding Tampa Bay, but Shilling has concerns, such as getting too much of one type of product.
“I have to conform to their model, or I don’t get food,” Shilling said. “They begin to control us. That’s a problem. I don’t have the ability to go anywhere else.”
Shilling said Feeding Tampa Bay is headquartered 60 miles away, and that might prove a problem if an emergency, such as a hurricane, occurred.
“Feeding Tampa Bay is not an evil organization,” Shilling said. “But it is important to recognize there is a change that puts risk in feeding the people.”
Smaller pantries, such as Journey Food Pantry at Journey Assembly of God in Bradenton and Joseph’s Pantry at Bible Baptist Church, have felt the pains as well.
Susan Baewer, the director of the Journey Food Pantry, said the church opted out of Feeding Tampa Bay’s initial offer in July 2018 because of the quantities of food required for purchase and a $120 fee per delivery. The church feeds 25-30 families per week.
Baewer said her pantry can afford the minimum delivery required but not after a $120 deliver fee is lumped on top.
Feeding Tampa Bay waived delivery fees during the first six months of transition, said its communication and culture officer, Jayci Peters said.
Bible Baptist Church Pantry Coordinator Paul McLaughlin said he disagrees with Feeding Tampa Bay’s program and feels the organization’s business model is squeezing out other agencies, such as The Food Bank of Manatee.
“It feels like a takeover,” McLaughlin said.
Feeding Tampa Bay President and CEO Thomas Mantz said the organization’s goal is to feed food-insecure people in Manatee County, and he hopes to work with as many agencies as possible. He recognizes change has been difficult for partner agencies, but he believes “we are moving forward not backward.”
He said the the same amount of food, if not more, is coming into Manatee County.
“Not all food has to go through an agency,” he said. “We feel strongly we’re moving food distribution into the new model that is more mobile.”
Mantz said Feeding Tampa Bay believes in providing fresh produce to families because it is healthier and more expensive than other food options. He admitted it can result in agencies getting too much of one type of vegetable, for example, but “we are bound by what gets donated.”
Mantz said partner agencies are the “lifeblood” of Feeding Tampa Bay’s work, and it tries to accommodate its partners.
“The changing nature of food relief is an adjustment for everybody,” Mantz said. “For some of our agencies, it’s more difficult to come into the future with us, especially smaller agencies. We want to work with everybody and try to manage those.”
Meals on Wheels Plus CEO Maribeth Phillips said she believes it is important to have food available locally, and the changes with Feeding Tampa Bay over the past 15 months mean about 3 million of 4.3 million pounds of food previously distributed by The Food Bank of Manatee are now being distributed by Feeding Tampa Bay. The Food Bank’s 60 partners continue to rely on The Food Bank for at least some of their food.
Phillips said The Food Bank of Manatee will operate with a focus on emergency food services for infants and families in crisis, fresh produce and nutrition education for food-insecure families, and weekend food during the summer for school-aged children. The Food Bank of Manatee will receive donations through food drives and monetary funds.
Phillips said the USDA contract changes do not affect other programs of Meals on Wheels Plus, such as its Daybreak Adult Day Center in East County and its home-delivered meals for seniors.
Meals on Wheels Plus is appealing the USDA contract decision with Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried and Florida Rep. Will Robinson in hopes of “keeping the food local.”