As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, Pinellas County food pantries are feeling the economic devastation caused by pandemic.
Here are some area resources distributing food to those in need that could also use community support during these trying times.
RCS Pinellas Food Bank, 700 Druid Road, Clearwater
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the RCS Pinellas Food Bank had a wide reach. It supports more than 75 community food pantries, serving more than 130,000 individuals each year. That’s more than 6 million pounds of food distributed annually.
Now, the need is even greater, said Kirk Ray Smith, RCS president and CEO. “It’s a scramble, and you can imagine what we already do each and every day. It’s tough, but we’re ready.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t need all the support they can get, especially as donations are down, he added. This includes in-kind and financial donations, as well as the food donated to RCS from grocers.
"We’ve seen a decrease in what our retail partners are able to provide,” Smith said. “One of the ways we address food insecurity is we have relationships with several grocers. They give surplus to us and give us discounts on additional (items) we purchase from them. This panic buying is having a ripple effect on us. They no longer have surplus. It’s down 80 percent pre-coronavirus.”
He added, “Daily it gets worse and worse. It’s almost at the point where there’s nothing left to sell us.”
Meanwhile, the need “has increased exponentially” as people suddenly find themselves out of work or with their hours cut, he said. “People working before didn’t need the food bank. Now they’re out of work…Even with a stimulus (package passing), I think the numbers are going to continue to go up.”
Currently, their biggest need is donations of non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items, he said, as well as monetary donations. “Financial donations are big because $2.50 can cover a meal for one person. Every dollar counts.”
RCS is also in need of volunteers. The nonprofit operates with about 2,500 volunteers and 80 employees. Because of this, the organization’s “overhead is nominal,” Smith said. “So, we’re able to put as much money as possible into our work. If folks stop volunteering, we’ll need to bring in more paid employees.”
Despite everything, he’s optimistic that RCS will continue to help families in need.
“Folks have stepped up, new donors, that have given me a lot of encouragement and hope,” he said. “People are stepping up to the plate. … We’re on the frontlines doing as much as we can. We need the help.”
To learn more on how to give or receive help at RCS, visit rcspinellas.org.
Beach Community Food Pantry, 1615 1st St., Indian Rocks Beach
This mission of Calvary Episcopal Church is already feeling the impact of the pandemic in numerous ways, said David Kline, past director, Beach Community Food Pantry.
Though “we’re at the front of this and our inventory is still pretty good,” he’s noticed “much less accessibility to product.”
They regularly pick up donated perishable items from organizations like Feeding Tampa Bay and the RCS Pinellas Food Bank, and already “the volume we were getting just two to three weeks ago isn’t there,” he said.
Because everyone is panic-buying, they’re having a difficult time finding the non-perishable items they typically purchase at Walmart and dollar stores, and when they do find them, there’s often a limit to the amount they can purchase, Kline added.
Meanwhile, they’re expecting an increase in need.
“This is just the first week of dealing with this sort of thing,” he said. “We’re certainly expecting more clients to show up, especially the working poor as they lose jobs, or their hours are cut back. The need is going to ramp up in the next few weeks. We’re going to be challenged.”
Kline stressed that the Beach Community Food Pantry will remain open.
“We can only give out what we have, but we’re going to continue to do this until we don’t have any more,” he said.
The best way to help the pantry is through food and monetary donations, he added.
To learn more about the Beach Community Food Pantry, visit bcfoodpantry.org.
The Kind Mouse Productions, 1801 16th St. N., St. Petersburg
Kind Mouse’s mission is to assist families and their hungry children, and they work closely with Pinellas County Schools and other partners to achieve this.
The nonprofit was coming off a busy week of distributing food to schoolchildren who would need it during the weeklong spring break when the implications of the coronavirus became apparent, said Gina Wilkins, Kind Mouse founder.
“We’ve been quite busy to say the least,” she said. “When the schools closed beyond spring break, all of a sudden it was urgent. Our phone started ringing off the hook.”
Because many of their volunteers are 65 and older and face greater health risks when it comes to COVID-19, she asked all of them to find projects they could work on at home.
“We told them, ‘We love you. We want you to stay safe,’ and rerouted them to do smaller things out of the home,” she said. “We appreciate them, but we don’t want them to get sick.”
With school closures extended beyond spring break, Wilkins is thinking “outside-the-box” on how to get food in the hands of hungry children, she said. “We cannot get to the kids through the schools because they’re not at school. We need to go through individual agencies.”
In this unprecedented situation, Kind Mouse has formed unique partnerships with other organizations to distribute the food. Those it has worked with so far include the Juvenile Welfare Board, Mattie Williams Neighborhood Center in Safety Harbor and the St. Petersburg Police Department.
She’s open to any business, club or organization that might be interested in working with the Kind Mouse to help distribute food to hungry kids throughout the county.
Though the school district is still providing breakfast and lunch during the closures, “that’s not dinner and that’s not weekends,” Wilkins said. “We’re just very, very concerned about kids being home. No one should be hungry. It’s very, very tough for families right now.”
The Kind Mouse also needs food and monetary donations as the need continues to grow, she added.
For more information, visit thekindmouse.org or call 727-575-7834.
Dunedin Cares Pantry, 1630 Pinehurst Road, Dunedin
In a March 20 email update, the Dunedin Cares Pantry asked followers to spread the word about its services.
“There are people in our community that don’t know about the Dunedin Cares Pantry and may need us. We would appreciate your help by reminding your friends, family and/or customers that we are here. You never know who might be in need,” the email stated.
Dunedin Cares anticipates a greater need in the coming weeks.
“Because schools are closed at least for the next two weeks and the end of the month is already very difficult for many folks in our community, we expect a larger volume of people in need,” the email stated.
The pantry has also changed its procedure for food distribution “to provide a safe arrangement for volunteers and clients.”
Distribution will take place only on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Rather than allowing individuals to select items from the pantry, items will be bagged and brought out to cars.
The food donation process has changed, also. Donations will be accepted at the Dunedin Cares Pantry Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Other dropoff locations will accept donations during business hours. These locations include Dunedin Golf Club, 1050 Palm Blvd.; Key West Express Boutique, 730 Broadway; Classic Boutique & Gallery, 2678 Bayshore Blvd.; and JC’s Dunedin Barber Shop, 787 San Christopher Drive.
Suggested items include pasta (canned and boxed), pasta sauce, canned tuna and chicken, rice, pancake mix and syrup, soups, chili, canned fruit, cereal, and personal hygiene items.
Find updated information at dunedincares.org.
Feeding God’s People, 10944 70th Ave., Seminole
Based out of Seminole Garage, which is equipped with a 40-foot walk-in freezer, a large cooler, a storage unit and a loading dock, Feeding God’s People provides food to church pantries every Friday and Sunday afternoons.
Sunila Spano, one of the organization’s founders, said she’s worried that the food they distribute, donated by Operation Blessing’s Ocala branch and the St. Pete Free Clinic, could dry up in coming weeks.
“If the stores can’t give it to them, how are they going to give it to us?” she asked.
She’s also already heard from some of the smaller food pantries they supply that have been forced to close their doors, particularly those connected with churches that are shutting down services during the pandemic.
As a result, Feeding God’s People has started hearing from the individuals these pantries previously served. This means the organization needs to evaluate how it will operate moving forward, Spano said.
“We’re getting lots of calls from regular people, which we’ve never had before,” she said. “Individuals are coming to us saying, ‘Please, the churches are closing up.’ They have nowhere to go and know that we’re open. We need to figure it out. We’re still giving to pantries that show up for donations, but we would like to help the others, too.”
Feeding God’s People has also seen a decrease in volunteers in past weeks.
“We need manpower, because everyone is so scared to come out and help,” Spano said.
They’re also seeking donations of dry goods, such as paper towels, toilet paper and soap.
“Publix and the big stores are out of these things. People have no toilet paper or hand sanitizer,” she said. “These are the needs they’re asking for.”
Those interested in learning more should call Spano at 727-459-6022.
Good Samaritan Community Food Pantry, 6085 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park
The Good Samaritan Community Food Pantry is “struggling to stay open,” said Kate Hall, food pantry director and treasurer of the Good Samaritan Church. “All of our volunteers fit into the high-risk category based on age. Pretty much 65 to 89 is the age group of our volunteer staff.”
She added, “Our volunteers’ families are concerned about them exposing themselves (to coronavirus.)”
With a dwindling volunteer base, the pantry has “changed (its) method of operation so that we are in limited contact with our clients,” she said. Instead of allowing them to enter the pantry themselves, they’re now offering curbside pickup for groceries.
Food pickup will take place Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
Clients picking up will be asked their name and the number of people in their family. Then, the pantry volunteer will bring them a pre-filled bag of groceries.
Hall anticipates more people will rely on their pantry for groceries.
“I’m fearful the need will increase exponentially with so many people being laid off of jobs,” she said.
It’s already difficult to find the items needed at the pantry, she added. “When I tried to do some shopping over the weekend, some of the stores are limiting the number of jars of spaghetti sauce or packages of pasta we can buy. Ramen noodles are nonexistent in the stores anymore.”
Still, the pantry’s volunteers are dedicated to serving the community through this crisis, Hall said. “We really are not certain what we’re going to encounter going forward. As long as we have people willing to hand out food and money in the fund, we’ll continue to give out food.”
Food and monetary donations are currently the pantry’s biggest needs. Contact the church at 727-544-8558 for more information.