ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The pandemic left a lot of people struggling to fulfill basic needs like putting food on the table. But one group that had a really tough time with food insecurity in the Bay Area was children. They were learning remotely at home rather than at school where they had access to free or reduced meals.
In March 2020, the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger launched Meals On Wheels for Kids to serve Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. It's the first program of its kind in the country.
"Our numbers grew significantly overnight," said Caitlyn Peacock, executive director of Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger. "We started serving 20 kids and now we serve 750 a week."
While the need among adults and seniors also grew, it eventually plateaued. Among kids, unable to reach distribution sites due to transportation or other family issues, the need continues to soar. New ZIP codes are added to the service area each week.
"Just in the last month alone, we saw our numbers increase 33% and are expecting a 500% increase as soon as school's out," Peacock said.
What they need right now, to get food into more than 3,500 small bellies, is volunteers. Deliveries begin at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and routes take about an hour. Currently, MOW4Kids has about 150 volunteers. They anticipate needing at least double that number.
"I just load up my car with a couple of boxes and go over to the families and deliver the food," said Asianna Lotito, who signed up to volunteer when the program launched. "It's really nice to get to know the families."
Lotito signed up to volunteer right when the program launched.
"I met a family a while back, I remember I couldn't really find their house and I was calling and texting them," Lotito said. "We actually ended up delivering to a storage unit because that's where they were living at the time."
With more shots in arms and guidelines loosening, life is slowly getting back to normal. But for thousands of kids, normal is still a long way off.
"Hunger existed pre-COVID," Peacock said. "And especially childhood hunger outside of school time existed pre-COVID, and it's only been exacerbated."
"It's just a very small thing that I can do to be able to give back to the kids that really can't provide for themselves, and you know, they're in need," Lotito said.
MOW4Kids is now expanding nationwide.