Locals stepping up support for area food pantries

Steve Clem, the food distribution manager, walks through an empty freezer that is normally filled with turkeys for Thanksgiving at the Interfaith Emergency Services Reuben Brawner Food Distribution Center in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Food banks in Ocala are in desperate need of donations to fulfill the needs of people who are in need. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

The holidays are always a busy time of year for local food banks and nonprofits that feed area families, but with COVID forcing businesses to shut down or cut back, a flood of out-of-work newcomers is swelling the demand for food and everyday staples.

Prior to the pandemic, St. Theresa’s Catholic Community’s food pantry in Belleview served 35 to 40 families a day Monday through Friday, said Jack Nettis, Jr., St. Theresa’s Catholic Community director of social services. “Since the pandemic, in the early days of that, we jumped way up to about 70 or so, and then we went down a little bit toward the end of the summer, and now we’re back up to 70 or 75, and some days as high as 80 families are being served.”

St. Theresa’s has had the good fortune of being able to obtain their food from several different sources, said Nettis, Jr. Much of their food comes to them from the USDA, through the First Step Food Bank.

And local families have also helped.

“There’s certainly going to be an increase in need over the holidays, but we’re very blessed that people have made financial donations,” said Nettis. “People recognize what we’re doing, so they’re dropping off food, and through the pandemic, the U.S. government has been distributing food out to the different food pantries like ours.”

The soup kitchen at St. Theresa’s is open 365 days a year, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was serving about 135 hot meals a day. The average is increasing again, with between 200 and 250 people being served Monday through Friday, said Nettis, Jr.

Community altruism has been critical in helping keep families fed.

“In order to satisfy the needs of the people, we rely on the USDA, but some of those things that we get from the First Step Food Bank we have to buy ourselves,” said Nettis, Jr. “We rely upon financial donations that come to us or grants. FEMA has extended some grants over the past summer. I just applied for some additional FEMA grants for the county to help make up for the increases in food that we’ve had to buy. People have been so generous, not just people who go to our church, but people from other churches as a whole as well as communities, the retirement communities in this area.”

The Salvation Army has been making sure their pantries are stocked so people can come and receive the food they need, said Maj. Dwayne Durham, Salvation Army corps officer, who serves alongside his wife Maj. Marion Durham in that capacity.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas distributions will be contactless. People will be driving through instead of coming into the building. The Christmas distribution will not only include food, but toys and clothing for children for those families who’ve applied.

“When we do our Thanksgiving and Christmas distribution, we’ll have people sign up for that, and I’m still waiting on the complete numbers on how many families we’ll be working with,” said Durham. “We’ll have turkey and the trimmings in the meal for that. But at the same time, we still have our daily food pantry that’s open Monday through Friday, and in addition to that, people can get a hot breakfast and hot dinner through our feeding program at the Center of Hope at 320 NW 1st Avenue. I’m confident that we in the community are doing a pretty good job of insuring people are fed.”

Organizations like the food pantry at Community of Gratitude in Ocklawaha have done their part to help families through a challenging time, and they’re getting help. They’ve seen an increase in food donations from houses of worship in the area as a result of the need, said Robert Belding-Miller, Community of Gratitude executive director.

“Fortunately, a good portion of our food comes from the USDA, and we haven’t experienced any shortages, but there are certain items like cranberry sauce, for example, and green beans, which are a little hard to get around the holidays,” said Belding-Miller. “But in general, the bulk food that we supply, we do grocery bags, fresh fruits and vegetables when we have them and bread. Our grocery bags are about two weeks of food for one person. We break it down from one to two people, or three to five people, so it depends on the size of the family and how much they get. We give about a week’s worth of food for everybody in the house.”

How you can help

The Marion County Medical Society is holding a food drive for Interfaith Emergency Services. To arrange pickup of large donations, email mcmsocala1@gmail.com or call 732-8883. Donations can also be dropped off Dec. 5 at 409 East Fort King Street.

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