FEAST volunteers, from left, Caroline Fabien, Karon Laird and Jennifer Gaines pack food bags for recipients.
PALM HARBOR – The need for food assistance increases every year despite growing prosperity in surrounding communities, according to the local food pantry, FEAST.
In 1989, the food pantry was incorporated under the name of the Food Emergency And Services Team. Although not affiliated, its distribution center is located on the grounds of Grace Community Church, 2255 Nebraska Ave. The food pantry provides food to more than 3,000 families twice a month. Compared to 12 years ago, it handed out food to about 900 families only once a month.
“To our benefit, our community is very generous with what they donate,” said FEAST director Walt Anderson. “I just have to contact the churches or let the word out that we need food. We’ve got about 18 churches that help support us and the rest are individuals and businesses in the community.”
Anderson said there are many reasons why people need food assistance. Some families, including single parents, have no choice but to take on the extra burden of caring for a relative’s children through loss. The death of a spouse can trigger missed pension and Social Security income.
“We have about 40 to 50 families where the grandparents are taking care of the children. Our largest family is 14 members,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of seniors who are trying to live on $500 to $600 a month.”
FEAST is a non-sectarian, not-for-profit organization that provides financial support and food assistance to its clients in Countryside, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Crystal Beach, Ozona, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs.
“That’s a big area. There are so many people that need assistance,” Anderson said. “Typically in an area like northern Pinellas County, many people don’t want to know the need is there or don’t want to face the reality of it.”
About 40 percent of recipients are senior citizens and many are diabetic. The food pantry provides enriched food products for people who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer. Bags of groceries are provided according to family size; a single person usually receives about $100 worth of food while a larger family receives well over $200. This includes meat, fresh vegetables and fruit, toiletries like toothpaste and hair shampoo, and laundry detergent, when available.
The food pantry began in 1983 when members of the Palm Harbor United Methodist Church provided bags of groceries for people requesting help. The number of recipients grew and by 1984, the church dedicated space for a formal food pantry.
The food pantry later expanded into a large warehouse, where the majority of the food is stored by sell-by date. Curlew United Methodist Church donates the 2,200 square foot building for the cause.
The community wholly supports FEAST. It is not funded or endowed by any group or church denomination. Nor is it supported in any way by local or state government or the Federal government.
“Just because we are a nonprofit doesn’t mean that we don’t have to pay for things. We do pay a small rent and we have to pay for trash removal, utilities and operating expenses,” Anderson said. “It’s just like any other business only we are totally dependent upon the community and the communities that we serve.”
Anderson, a retired psychologist, has served as FEAST’s director since 2001. He works at the distribution center daily and visits area churches up to three times a week. He also gives presentations to civic groups on a regular basis.
About 45 volunteers work at the food pantry up to four hours a day once or twice a week. The food pantry employs a driver and three part-time employees who make around minimum wage.
“That’s been our lifeblood. If we had to buy all the food and pay all the volunteers, we couldn’t keep the doors open more than a week or two,” Anderson said. “When I started money was allocated for a small reimbursement for the director but my wife (a retired school teacher) and I decided we would donate back and not take it.”
During food drives, students from local high schools and volunteers from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue lug 30-pound boxes of donated food into the 1970s rehabbed, single-wide trailer – the designated distribution center. The food is sorted, organized and bagged or taken to the warehouse for storage.
“I know me and I know my wife – we’d get into some crevice in Spain or Africa and do something (philanthropic) over there,” Anderson said. “People ask me why I’m doing this. We’ve been very fortunate over the years. We’ve done some traveling but right now, this is what I want to do.”
Anderson paused for a moment. He cleared his throat and brushed away a tear. “These people are in our hands,” he said. “They’re in the hands of the people in the community who help them out.”
Many area supermarkets and fast food restaurants donate food such as Publix, Boar’s Head, Pizza Hut, Panera Bread, Starbucks and many others. When school is in session, unused milk and sandwiches are turned over to the food pantry. Area churches sponsor brown bag lunch programs that help feed the homeless. During summer, FEAST handed out 25,000 bottles of water to people who lack permanent housing. Nothing goes to waste. Food that is unusable or past the sell-by date is sent to pig farms in Spring Hill.
Yum! Brands Inc., owners of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, recently awarded FEAST a $10,000 grant, which was sponsored through the Joseph L. Carwise Middle School program. The food pantry used the money to feed students who were out of school for the summer – students typically on a school lunch program.
FEAST is a community partner with the Department of Children and Families. Anyone in the community can visit the food pantry and get help applying for food stamp benefits, report changes or complete an updated review for public assistance.
All donations, including food, cash, checks or gift cards, are tax deductible under section 501C3 of the IRS Code.
Eligibility for assistance is based on annual income. Applicants must provide Social Security card(s) and proof of residence and income. A typical family of four is eligible to receive food if their weekly income is at or below $667, for example.