15 Jul 2020 Rising to Meet the Heightened Challenge of Hunger in Southwest Florida
When it comes to rallying support for families coping with heightened food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis, the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida has not backed down from the challenge of meeting a 40% increase in the need for food among those struggling with added economic hardships as a result of the pandemic.
“The health crisis early-on extended into an economic crisis,” says Barbara Evans, chief development officer of the food bank, which partners with more than 150 agencies in Southwest Florida to feed children, working-poor families, seniors and other individuals in need. “Dating back to March, we began seeing people coming for food for the first time because of the early school closings and the hit to the service industries, which have an economic ripple effect on jobs throughout the community.”
Ms. Evans points out that summers are typically a heightened time for food insecurity because economically disadvantaged children are out of school and don’t have access to the free– and reduced–cost lunch programs through school system pantries, which the food bank supports. Additionally, when that loss of a primary distribution channel for children and their families is combined with a more extreme summer economic slowdown than typical and the concurrent employment disruptions due to COVID-19, the urgency for those in need intensifies.
The food bank has also taken on challenges that have arisen from disruptions to its food-donation sources – such as grocers and restaurants – and, crucially, the loss of its seasonal volunteers who return North for the summer.
Ms. Evans says a key to the organization’s response to the multi-pronged complications was establishing relationships directly with growers and a call for food-distribution volunteers through their community networks and on their website. One recent week saw nearly 450 volunteers donating almost 1,500 hours of work to support the fight against hunger.
“It’s been amazing and extremely heartening that the community has responded to our need for volunteers,” she says. “The people have been ready, willing and able to come and give of their time.”
Because of social–distancing requirements, the food bank has had to modify its operations by staggering volunteer shifts and purchasing an additional conveyor belt for its Fort Myers warehouse, allowing volunteers who assemble the food kits to spread out, while maintaining production efficiencies that have allowed the most effective response to the increased demand.
Amid the early turbulent days of pivoting to new strategies that would allow them to continue its mission, Ms. Evans says the support of a Southwest Florida Community Foundation grant resulted in helping the organization launch its initial pandemic response efforts.
The program, Harry’s Helpings, produces shelf-stable, easily stored and distributed food kits, which were originally intended to feed students and their families through the schools; pivoting to the new realities of COVID-19, the Harry’s Helpings program has carried on, with drive-through distributions.
Packed by volunteers with enough ingredients to prepare 15 or more full meals, such as pasta, sauce and canned vegetables, the food kits include recipes and nutrition–education materials provided in partnership with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Family Nutrition Program.
“The program for kids and their families that the grant supports was really the springboard for our best way to respond with mobile–pantry distributions, where we can provide them the food in a safe, social-distancing manner,” she says. “While we didn’t need to redirect our grant funds, their offer of the ability to do so is a reflection of their tremendous insight into the operational needs of the nonprofit community.”
The road back to a sense of normalcy remains an unpredictable one throughout the region, but the long-serving food bank’s resolve to navigate it builds upon a track record of responding with experienced disaster relief through the years.
“We don’t have a clear picture yet on what’s going to happen within the schools, but we will respond to whatever the new reality is. And we’ll continue our drive–throughs and the programs we’re currently operating, which are our Harry’s Helpings, our senior feeding programs and supporting our partner organizations. The programs may be modified in terms of the actual locations where distributions take place, but they will remain fully functional.”
While the future remains unpredictable, the mission for the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida remains a constant: a refusal to stomach the thought of any resident going hungry, no matter the challenges during these times of unprecedented uncertainty.
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.