ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Food scarcity has suddenly become a reality for many families across the Bay Area. For those who lack transportation, the struggle to put food on the table during a pandemic is a far greater challenge.
School districts across Tampa Bay have stepped in to help families with food distribution sites, providing up to a week's worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks for school children.
Thousands of families are participating, but not every child's parents or guardians can pick up the much-needed aid. That's where a familiar program is stepping in.
Meals on Wheels was scheduled to launch a small pilot program for kids this summer, but when the coronavirus closed schools across the state in March, program directors decided to act.
"Every day we're surprised by the need," said Caitlyn Peacock, executive director of Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger. "We definitely didn't think it was going to be quite so robust, but in the seven weeks we've been doing this the applications keep pouring in and we've gone from one site to four and that's just due to demand."
Among the new meal packing sites: the Mahaffey Theater. On Saturday, dozens of volunteers helped pack up meals that will be delivered straight to the doors of families in need.
The boxes are packed with fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, as well as shelf-stable pantry items that will allow parents to cook wholesome meals. Ready-to-eat meals will also be added to each delivery before they're shipped out on Monday.
"We strive to create a healthy meal ingredient box for these families recognizing that the healthy food items can be harder to come by, especially for the folks that don’t have transportation or the financial resources to afford them," said Peacock.
Peacock said the program, which started with 25 kids, is now providing meals for more than 550 throughout Pinellas County. As the pandemic wears on, the number of families reaching out for assistance continues to grow.
"A lot of our parents have never ever had to participate in an emergency feeding program, so they don’t know what to do and when they call they’re scared,” explained Peacock. “It’s a wonderful feeling that when they call we don’t have to say oh sorry we can’t help you. We’re able to say yes, we can help you and we’ll serve you.”
The ability to feed so many families is the result of generous time and monetary donations from the community. St. Petersburg real estate mogul and Sundial owner Bill Edwards recently donated $100,000 from the Edwards Family Foundation to help keep the program going. The Mahaffey Theater, which is run by the foundation, will also continue to serve as a meal packing site for Meals on Wheels for Kids as the program continues to feed children through August.
The program currently serves the following St. Petersburg zip codes: 33701, 33703, 33704, 33705, 33707, 33708, 33709, 33710, 33711, 33712, 33713 and 33714; and will continue to expand the program to include neighboring zip codes.
If you or someone you know could benefit from the program, you are asked to call the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger at (813) 344-5837 or submit an application at www.NetworktoEndHunger.org/MOW4Kids.
If eligible, meal delivery service can begin the following week, while school is closed. If you'd like to get involved, please visit www.networktoendhunger.org/volunteer to complete a volunteer application.