For 17 years, Church and Community Outreach operated a food pantry out of the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center in Safety Harbor, serving hungry parents and children from hundreds of households.
Then, in September 2017, as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida’s West Coast, CCO completed the planned closure of its food bank, leaving the family center — and many families and children — without a food pantry.
“They had already moved things out, but they still had some food here,” said Janet Hooper, Mattie Williams’ executive director. “I pulled the staff together and said, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t let people not have food.’”
Though the CCO pantry had decided long before Irma to move to Clearwater, the result was the same: Some 50 families were unable to drive or otherwise reach the CCO pantry’s new location.
“There was no bus going there so there was an issue,” Hooper said.
Hooper’s staff felt launching a food pantry in two weeks was unrealistic. The freezers, shelves and other equipment the CCO food bank used were gone from a large, empty room. Finding and buying commercial refrigerators and freezers and installing shelving units was a tough proposition.
“Understand, my staff looked at me like I was nuts,” said Hooper, who smiles as she describes how everything fell together, mainly with help from local churches, nonprofits and school kids who threw in to build and open a new food pantry.
Hungry families in Safety Harbor, Oldsmar
More on that — but first, some facts from the United Way’s annual measure of the working poor, called the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report:
• 41 percent of Pinellas County’s households struggle to afford basic needs, like housing, food, health care, and child care.
• A Florida individual who makes $11,770 a year or less is in poverty; a Florida family of four that brings in $24,250 or less is considered in poverty.
• At least 67 percent of all Florida jobs pay less than $20 per hour.
“If you go by the U.S. Census, we have more than 3,600 kids in our service area (Safety Harbor, Oldsmar, and ZIP codes 33759, 33761) who are below poverty level,” said Charrie Moscardini, Mattie Williams’ community development director.
“When you talk about 3,600 kids, that’s a lot of kids in a smaller area than you would expect,” Hooper agreed.
‘People were stopping in and looking for food …’
“Everybody was like, how are we going to do this?” Moscardini remembered. “People were stopping in and looking for food, and we didn’t have any.”
Because the family center has provided a community clothes closet, family support services, youth programs, career development and adult education services since 1994, its board members had connections throughout the helping community.
“Janet took the idea to the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center’s board of directors,” Moscardini said.
As volunteers cleaned and painted the room that once held the food pantry, Hooper and board members put the word out for new or used commercial refrigerators and freezers and other food equipment. Two volunteers, including Moscardini, sought certification in safe food handling from Safe Staff, a professional food-training organization licensed with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Moscardini, a professional grant writer, also put the call out for financial donations over social media, as well as researched and applied for such grants as the Pinellas Community Foundation’s Hunger Grant.
Community puts in serious effort to open food bank
The family center also contacted the Florida Dream Center, which provides grants for feeding the hungry, and Feeding Tampa Bay, which operates a large warehouse of donated food and groceries in St. Petersburg for distribution to food pantries in the Tampa Bay area.
“Within a week, we had two certified food handlers and a promise of emergency funds from the Juvenile Welfare Board,” Moscardini said. “Within two weeks, we had been given a new commercial grade freezer and a new commercial grade refrigerator; we had sent in our application for a partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay; and we had opened our Food Pantry, serving 35 families with approximately 30 children.”
Bayside Community Church in Safety Harbor donated a new commercial freezer for the new food pantry and the city of Clearwater helped fund a new refrigerator, Hooper said.
The center gets food from other sources:
• Local mail deliverers in the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger program;
• Safety Harbor’s Briar Creek Mobile Home Community
• Safety Harbor’s annual Gobble Wobble 5K Walk/Run Food Drive
• School food drives, and many other local efforts supply the pantry with food.
• Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF)
• Clearwater Community Block Grants
Food grants from the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, the Pinellas Community Foundation, and Finance of America Cares helps the family center stock low-fat, low-sodium, and other healthy food for people battling diabetes, high blood pressure and other medical conditions, Moscardini said.
“If you’re living on the edge, it is much cheaper to eat food that is not healthy than it is to buy healthy food,” she said. “You can get a McDonald’s meal for what fresh broccoli costs at the store.”
Now, a year and a half after Irma, the center serves 60-70 families a week and is on the way to serving 100 families every week, Hooper said. On Thursday, March 21, the pantry opened its doors for evening shoppers for the first time.
“We’re now open one weeknight so people can come by after work,” Hooper said. “We’re asking families to call in and let us know they are coming by that evening and we’ll put food aside to make sure we meet their needs.”
The family center has more than 250 families on its rolls, in addition to food, of course, the center provides clothes and other items families might need. The food pantry, however, meets immediate needs.
“We don’t give them enough to live on a whole week,” Hooper said. “In addition to vegetables, starches, fruits, bread, we can give them two or three pieces of meat, that’s it. No food bank can feed families totally. We just want to keep families together to help them survive.”
To contact the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center, call 727-791-8255