Nearly 14% of Polk County residents experience food insecurity.
That’s the number provided by Feeding America in 2018, but it may be higher today due to the amount of jobs lost and lives disrupted by the onset of COVID-19 over 18 months ago.
Even as the effects of COVID-19 start to wear off — vaccines are widely available, businesses have weathered the worst of the storm and the unemployment rate has come down considerably — food insecurity continues to be a problem in Polk County ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. And according to some anecdotal evidence from local pantries, it’s getting worse.
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The issue has become dire enough that Polk Vision, which was formed to help the county realize “its aspirations and full potential,” has formed a Food Security Council to tackle the issue. But as leaders search for solutions, food-oriented service organizations need help now.
Rev. Allan Fretto stopped ministering to run the Lakeland Blessings and Hope Food Pantry full-time.
Fretto, president of the pantry, said he had to give up the church because Blessings and Hope had become a “full-time endeavor” as the number of families in need of groceries climbed each week.
Blessings and Hope has served just under 600 families each week for the past two weeks through its food pantry distribution service, which runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. every third Saturday of the month.
Fretto said the pantry saw its number of families served climb to between 450 and 500 families when the pandemic hit. But lately, it’s gotten worse.
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“The last few weeks it seems like with a lot of the government issues, people are either out of work, not working or not making enough money because the prices in the stores have skyrocketed,” Fretto said. “People have found that they just could not afford the food.”
According to Fretto’s suppliers, prices for goods are expected to climb about 20% by the end of November and another 30% by the end of December. Even if increases don’t end up being that steep, families also have to juggle holiday shopping and potentially travel in the coming weeks, further straining tight budgets.
Last year, the influx of people in drive-thru lines were there because of the pandemic, Fretto said. Lately, prices are the larger villain, especially for those out of work, a factor sometimes attributable to COVID-19.
“Stores are running out of food and their prices are just increasing where these people are living right on the edge of what they’re capable of paying for,” Fretto said. “If they’re disabled or if they’re [on] food stamps or a fixed income, they’re not able to meet their weekly needs.”
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Price hikes expose just how vulnerable much of the working population is. COVID-19 did the same, said Steve Bissonnette, president of Volunteers In Service to The Elderly, or VISTE.
“I think there’s a lot of people in our community that are one paycheck away or broken down car away or one trip and fall injury away from needing help,” Bissonnette said. “And prior to COVID, a lot of them were kind of getting along. But with COVID and the injuries and having to be forced out of work just because of exposure to somebody else even if they didn’t have the illness, those factors started to really become more paramount. A lot more people found themselves in a position where they needed help.”
Bissonnette also attributes some of the increase in need, at least for VISTE, to the disappearance of resources that sprung up in response to COVID-19.
Bissonnette said that in addition to the shift in need for more food, VISTE and other organizations faced challenges getting donations and volunteers. Some VISTE clients were able to use new sites formed around the county as a result of the pandemic, but they now have to return to VISTE for their grocery and hot meal needs.
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“A lot of those pop-up sites have now disappeared. And they were not necessarily sustainable,” Bissonnette said.
The oversaturation of the supplemental food distribution market partially led to the formation of Polk County’s Food Security Council.
“We have always had neighbors who occasionally or periodically were in need of additional support,” Polk Vision Executive Director Kim Long said. “It’s just that there was an overwhelming need that brought it to the forefront of everyone’s attention that we probably could do this better.”
Long said that since Polk Vision exists at the intersection of several other groups that serve the community, the organization was able to pick up on conversations surrounding feeding residents, particularly during the summer — when kids don’t have access to school meals — and around the holidays. Long noticed an uptick during the throes of COVID as need spiked and several community organizations expanded their work surrounding supplemental meals and feeding.
The Food Security Council was formed to put those organizations in conversation with each other and better coordinate asset distribution, so that they don’t “oversaturate one and underserve another” in attempting to serve Polk communities. On the council, there are members with social services, economic development, planning and mass transportation, Long said.
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“Maybe if as a community we all talked more regularly and did some asset mapping, we would be in better service to our neighbors who are in need of emergency food support,” Long said. “We’re all doing great work. Better coordination could strategically improve the outcomes.
“We don’t want to be stumbling over one another in our earnest efforts to be in service to the community,” she added.
The council is partnering with the Florida Department of Health and the Health Council of West Central Florida to produce a food security asset mapping and needs analysis to determine who needs assistance and who’s already serving those in need.
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Ultimately, the council has one vision in mind: to be put out of business. Long said the long-term goal is to find systemic solutions to food insecurity for Polk residents.
“It’s addressing the issue long-term in a sustainable fashion where they have consistent access to the food they need and are not worried paycheck to paycheck about whether they can feed their family adequately,” Long said.
While food insecurity may appear heightened during food-centered holidays, Long notes that hunger isn’t seasonal — it’s year-round. And so is the council’s work.
Long said that the council is focused on getting nutritious food in “adequate supply and consistent supply” into hungry mouths.
“It isn’t just that they’re hungry,” Long said. “We need to be thinking about the long-term health consequences. We need to know that it is well-balanced, healthy, nutritious food.”
At Blessings and Hope, recipients get bags and bags of groceries including meat products, milk, cheese, produce, snacks, baked goods and dry goods. Fretto said despite the increase in need, recipients are getting more than they were before; while volunteers may be hard to find, donations are steady.
“If we have extra, they’re going to get it,” Fretto said.
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The organization was unable to secure turkeys for Thanksgiving, but families will get other holiday-themed goods to make traditional dishes. And essentially everyone is welcome.
Fretto said that those on Medicaid, food stamps or social security disability as well as those below a certain income threshold depending on family size are eligible to receive food at the drive thru. But he’s also open to helping others.
“If you’re hungry, you can come and get food,” Fretto said. “Some people just barely make it. Some people are just over the limit for the government by a few dollars. They’ll come to us and they’ll tell us their story. I don’t deny people. If they’re hungry, we’re going to feed them.”
Some organizations go a little further for Thanksgiving. VISTE, for example, is hosting its 25th annual delivery of Thanksgiving meals at the RP Funding Center.
Bissonnette said they’ll be delivering 2,000 meals, their most ever. He compared it to a “Chick-fil-a on steroids”: there’s a double drive-thru line in the parking lot where volunteers can have food placed in their vehicles and then deliver them to their respective recipients.
Each meal comes in a brown paper bag decorated by a local elementary, middle or high school student. Recipients, who must be over 70 years old and living independently, also get a live plant.
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“In addition to just some food, it’s also a way to connect with people at the holidays, which for some, this is their holiday celebration,” Bissonnette said. “They haven’t been forgotten.”
There was some trouble locating food for the drive. Pole beans and cranberry sauce have been hard to come by. So have volunteers: Bissonnette said while some regulars have returned under the security of the vaccine, they’re still short.
Long said this is the time of year where those who are food insecure are “even more acutely aware that they don’t have a well-rounded, well-balanced meal to set before their family.” She encourages others to find their passion and volunteer.
“This time of year is the time of year when all of us are counting our blessings and thinking of giving back,” Long said.
Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.
Nearly 14% of Polk County residents experience food insecurity.