by Tina Figliuolo
Director, Community Relations and Development
Charlotte County Homeless Coalition
Four years ago a group of human service agencies, including many food pantries, gathered to discuss hunger in Charlotte County. For most in this first meeting we had no idea how many people were actually hungry in our own community. We heard numbers ranging from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands. But since no one had the real answer a task force was formed to find out, the Food Connection Committee set out to start data collection.
Mid-way through the first year, more than half of the County’s Food Pantries had agreed to share information in a shared database, dubbed the Community Information System (CIS). The group quickly began to see a picture of residents struggling with lack of food.
By the end of the first year, the Food Connection Project had identified over 11,000 people who used more than 80,000 services throughout the community. These services included such things as; food pantries, rental & utility assistance, free clothing & furniture, and case management. These 11,000 made up 3,642 Households and they frequented food pantries more than 23,000 times.
We were surprised to learn that of these 3,642 households, only 37% received Food Stamp assistance (SNAP). This information gave the team an immediate needs gap that could be addressed through counseling and support.
The project’s second year was successful beyond our expectations. We were able to collaborate with more pantries than our initial goal and data really began to tell a story of hunger in Charlotte County. We realized that what we thought we knew and expected to see, we didn’t. The things we had previously based our assumptions on, were not entirely accurate.
What has been created from the Food Connection is Charlotte County’s unique story of hunger and poverty. Although the literally homeless do not play a significant role in the data, the data told us that most people who were accessing services here were less than one bump in the road from becoming homeless. They are your neighbors, young and old alike. They are members of your congregation. They are members of your family. The examination of the data was telling, many people simply didn’t know where or how to access help that could prevent them from being hungry.
A major goal of the project was to identify the repeat high utilizers of food pantries and try to reduce their dependency on the services by addressing their deeper needs. Through the data we were able to identify those high utilizers quickly and began to implement plans to find out why those households were so in need.
The first household identified was “Sue and Joe.” We found that Sue had visited food pantries 140 times over a one year span, that’s over 10 times a month! When a case manager sat down with Sue, they were surprised to learn that her husband, Joe was ill and homebound. Sue had given up her manager job at a local medical office to help him. Sue explained that she had been visiting local pantries as a way to socialize with others since being home all the time was something she was not used to. Sue would use some of the food; however most would be given away to her neighbors and friends. She felt she was helping others and just thought she was sharing. The case manager referred Sue to volunteer at a local food pantry to meet her need for companionship and socialization. This proved to be a great solution and Sue is happy in her new role.
At the beginning of the project’s second year, the number of people identified as high service utilizers totaled 254 and today that number has decreased to only 52. What does all this mean? We as a community are making real progress in the fight against hunger. No question there is still a long way to go, but meeting with people one on one and addressing their real needs is working. We are so thankful to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, United Way of Charlotte County, Mosaic and the Harry Chapin Food Bank for being our partners in this project.
This summer, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is spotlighting the nonprofit organizations funded through the 2016 competitive grant cycle. We have asked our 2016 grantees to send us their stories. The Foundation is pleased to partner with these change-makers.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $93 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $63 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $3.2 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services, as well as provided regional community impact grants and scholarship grants.