In the twilight before dawn, twice a month, as many as 150 families line up on a Saturday morning outside Christ Church in Mandarin. Hunger brings them out in the dark.
The hungry are not just the homeless living on the street. The hungry in North Florida may be your neighbor, a co-worker, the teller at the supermarket, an elderly couple, a working single parent with children, a family where the breadwinner has been laid off, a disabled person or a wage-earner whose hours have been cut.
“You can’t paint hunger with one common brush. You know someone who is hungry. You may not know they are hungry. It could be someone at church, somebody you work with,” said Bruce Ganger, executive director of Second Harvest North Florida, who has the herculean task of supplying food to the hungry in 17 counties in North Florida, and he does it through a network of food pantries, social service agencies, homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
“You can’t paint hunger with a common brush because there is no one demographic,” he said.
On a recent morning, Kathy Clements, the food pantry director at Christ Church on Old St. Augustine Road, is at Second Harvest, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse about a mile north of EverBank Field.
On a very limited budget, she’s shopping for fresh fruit, canned goods, cereal, eggs, apples and disposable diapers. She recently got a good deal on a pallet of potatoes, allowing her to provide spuds for two weekends. She also distributes about 4,000 pounds of meat each month, which includes, beef, pork, turkey, chicken and lamb. Other food items, such as juice and cheese, come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She avoids frozen pizzas and junk food, saying she would prefer to buy more wholesome meat and other products for her limited freezer capacity.
At the Christ Church food pantry, people can only come once every other month. It’s open 9 a.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Clements said clients leave with an overflowing grocery cart, with enough food for at least two weeks, admittedly a stopgap measure.
“It’s a blessing,” she said.
At another agency across town, BEAM helps families in five Beaches ZIP codes with food, rent assistance and utility bills.
“Underemployment is a significant problem. We see a lot of people who are underemployed. They can’t make their paychecks go far enough,” said Susan King, executive director of the Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry.
In the past year, they’ve helped about 1,800 people with food and other assistance. The food comes from Second Harvest.
“There are so many people who fall through the cracks,” King said.
Unlike other food pantries, BEAM offers client choice, where shoppers can make selections on what foods they want.
“The typical model is to hand someone a bag of food,” she said.
Clients can come once every 30 days and receive about three days’ worth of food ranging from meats and grains to vegetables and fruit.
Josh Ellis, Second Harvest’s mobile pantry coordinator, drives two truckloads of food a day out to various agencies.
“The economy has been bad. It has hurt a lot of people,” Ellis said. “People at the end of the day are doing everything they can just to get by.”
But the harder the folks at Second Harvest and their affiliated agencies work, the more monumental the problem becomes.
Over the past three years, Second Harvest has increased the amount of food it delivers from about six million pounds a year to about 20 million pounds this year — or about 17.5 million meals. But Ganger said he needs twice as much, 40 million pounds a year, to meet the needs of those who hunger in the 17 counties.
“That’s the face of hunger in Northeast Florida,” he said. “The need is so great.”
The organization distributes food from St. Augustine to Gainesville to Lake City.
Second Harvest provides food to more than 170,700 people a year, an estimated 31,400 weekly.
It estimates that 342,000 individuals in its 17-county service area are deemed to be “food insecure,” which means they might or might not be hungry, but they do not know when they will eat again. More than a third of these are children.
Second Harvest said for every dollar donated, it can distribute food for seven meals.
The need continues to grow. In 2010, Christ Church provided food to 2,405 families or 9,376 people and it grew to 2,715 families or 10,922 people in 2011. In the first seven months of this year, 1,790 families or 6,575 people have been helped. Second Harvest maintains a fleet of 13 vehicles to provide pickup and delivery services. Trucks travel to Publix, Winn-Dixie, Target, BJ’s and Walmart to pick up perishable and non-perishable items. On a recent morning, a cooler held milk and yogurt which had reached its sell-by date, but Ganger said milk is good for about five days after that date. The cooler also held salad, pizza and even some birthday cakes.
By afternoon, Ganger said, those items will be on trucks to Second Harvest agencies.
“We are rescuing food and putting it in the hands of the people who are hungry,” Ganger said.
Second Harvest puts bins out where farmers are harvesting tomatoes and potatoes, to rescue vegetables that might be cosmetically imperfect but can still be put to use.
“In the regular marketplace, it is not useable, but there is nothing wrong with it,” Ganger said.
“We know where it is, and we go get it. We bring it back to the distribution center and sort it, and then we distribute it to hungry folks,” he said. “The demand is so strong, but we only get half of what we need to meet demand.”
Another measure of hunger is the number of people participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
Despite criticism from the Republican presidential ticket, SNAP provides some 31 million people per month with electronic benefit cards that they can use like cash at most grocery stores.
Under the SNAP program, households can use benefits to buy bread, cereals, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products. In addition, SNAP can be used to buy soft drinks, candy, cookies, crackers, ice cream, seafood, steaks and bakery cakes. SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy beer, wine, liquor, tobacco, non-food items (such as pet food, soaps, paper products, household supplies, vitamins and medicines), food that will be eaten in the store or hot foods.
BEAM helps people register for SNAP, because many don’t realize they can receive assistance. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are almost 1 million individuals in Florida who are eligible for SNAP who haven’t applied. This means that $417.3 million in funding for food assistance goes unused.
Recipients must meet income requirements. Households may have up to $2,000 in countable resources, such as a bank account, or up to $3,250 in countable resources if at least one person is 60 or older or is disabled. The program considers both the gross monthly income, which is 130 percent of poverty limit, and the net monthly income, which is 100 percent of poverty limit. For example, a family of four earning a gross income of $2,050 could receive a SNAP allotment of $324 a month.
From July 2011 to July 2012, the number of people on SNAP in Florida grew from 3,074,193 to 3,125,331. The average monthly benefit per household dropped from $268.56 to $258.62 between 2010 and 2011.
In the same period nationally, the total number of people on SNAP grew by 2.9 percent, from 45,345,473 to 46,681,833.
According to researchers at University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, the number of Americans using the SNAP program has substantially increased since the recession began and has continued to climb as Americans struggle with the economic hardships of the post-recession economy. By 2010, said researcher Jessica Bean, nearly 12 percent of American households reported receiving SNAP benefits.
But food banks and other resources are still needed to fill the gaps.
In one section of Second Harvest are pallets of food for Kids Café, for free or reduced-fee school breakfast and lunches. In Duval County, 55.3 percent of school children qualify. Others receive an afternoon meal if they participate in an afterschool program.
But kids might miss those meals when they aren’t at school on weekends and holidays. An innovative program run by Second Harvest is the backpack program, in which a student who leaves for the weekend or a school break is given a backpack of food for the child and other household members, intended to supplement their meals.
Ganger said about 1,000 students receive the backpacks each week, but there are 3,000 more who could benefit from the program, if they had more funding.
A bag of food per child and family for weekends during the 42-week school year costs only $100.
Second Harvest North Florida is the oldest and largest program of Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida, started in 1979. It can be reached at WeNourishHope.org.