STACEY HENSON, SHENSON@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Hunger remains year round, but monetary donations carry Southwest Florida charities through lean months
One Southwest Florida food bank is trying to get turkeys on the tables of 15,000 hungry families this Thanksgiving.
The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida is kicking into high gear: It relies on the community this time of year more than ever.
"The problem is we can't always fill our orders," said Miriam Pereira, director of development, as it heads full-force into its holiday turkey drive and launches its annual fund drive.
Photo: Kyle Carpenter, an employee for the Hilton properties in Fort Myers helps bag green beans with fellow workers while volunteering at the Harry Chapin Food Bank. (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press)
The food bank has about 150 member agencies providing services, including church food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and disaster relief agencies. More than 30,000 individuals in Lee, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Charlotte counties receive help each month through the efforts.
The USDA committed to 5,000 turkeys and chickens. The food bank hopes the community comes through with the other 10,000 it estimates it needs.
With an average cost of $14 per turkey, Pereira says food donations go further than cash donations. Typically, the food bank can turn a $1 cash donation into $6 worth of food. Not so with the birds, which the food bank buys at wholesale and then has to transport to the warehouse.
The effort comes just as fall hits its stride.
"Summer gets really thin," Pereira said. "In the summer, donations are harder to come by. Generally speaking, in the summer, unemployment picks up a little bit. Snowbirds are gone. We're losing a good chunk of donor base and a good chunk of our volunteer base."
Florida's overheated and rain-filled summer put a halt to the growing seasons, with fresh produce rare. The food bank relied more on retailers providing frozen meat and canned goods.
As the snowbirds arrive, they represent the bulk of the agency's volunteers and those who donate. And as the temperatures continue to cool, Southwest Florida crops such as tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers, are ready to harvest, with donations coming in from the farms.
Barbara Evans, chief development officer at Grace Place in Golden Gate, said the agency is the largest distribution point in Collier County, serving 200 families per week and more than 2,000 unique families each year.
Formed to combat illiteracy in 2004, its Friday food pantry opened in 2008 at the height of the recession. The pantry serves a 4-square mile population that lives in a "food desert", meaning there are not enough grocery stores or fresh produce to feed the population. Residents are forced to shop at convenience and ethnic foods stores, which typically have higher markups.
"We've seen an increase in the number of families that we serve," Evans said. "Last year, we served 150-175 a week, now we're getting close to about 200 families per week."
She attributes the growth to the economy and the high cost of living in Collier County, where the median home price is $400,000.
Volunteers from Suncoast Estates fill the back of their vehicles with potatoes from the Harry Chapin Food Bank. The food will help needy residents of Suncoast. (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press)
"For a family of four living below federal poverty line, you can't afford that," she said. "But that's where the market is."
She said as the northerners return to their winter homes in Southwest Florida, employment picks up in the service industry, putting more families to work.
That's when the senior population emerges.
"In the height of season, it becomes more obvious about seniors and their needs," Evans said. "It's harder to be lost in the crowd."
Biff Staples, president of the South Fort Myers Food Pantry, emphasizes that hunger is an ongoing issue in the community.
"The poor are poor year-round," he said.
According to Feeding America's 2015 "Map the Meal Gap" study nearly 93,000 Lee County residents and 41,000 Collier County residents don't know where their next meal will come from.
The South Fort Myers Food Pantry is an organization of 15 member churches and a country club that feeds about 35,000 of those individuals in 8,000 families each year, obtaining most of its food from the Harry Chapin Food Bank.
Staples' organization asked for 600 birds from the food bank and hopes to supplement that number with another 400 birds and add hams for Christmas.
With minimal overhead, owning the building and operating entirely with volunteers, Staples said the $80,000 annual budget nearly all goes to food for the hungry. Electricity and some maintenance are the only expenses. When the pantry runs bare, the member churches have food drives and raise funds.
"When somebody donates $1, a dollar goes to food," he said.
Richard Guedon, a resident of Suncoast Estates and volunteer helps pack the back of a pickup with potatoes that will be used to feed the needy of Suncoast Estates. He and a crew were picking up food from the Harry Chapin Food Bank on Friday. (Photo: Andrew West/The News-Press, Andrew West/The News-Press)
Grace Place, South Fort Myers Food Pantry and the other direct food banks typically provide cereals, grains, pasta, and other staples, as well as whatever fruit, vegetables and meat that is available.
With the Thanksgiving food, Harry Chapin Food Bank organizers hope to round out the entire meal, giving the families a good day's worth of food that can stretch over several meals, Pereira said.
"We estimate we'll need $140,000 worth of birds between now and mid-November," Pereira said. "We also try and stretch that out into Christmas."
If the food bank doesn't receive enough of the turkeys and chickens, it will cut each agency's request proportionally. So if an agency asked for 100 birds, and the food bank got 90 percent of its request, the agency would receive 90 birds, possibly leaving 10 families without a Thanksgiving turkey.
"We do the best we can," Pereira said.
Harry Chapin Food Bank has an ongoing $5.1 million capital campaign to pay off the mortgage on its 50,000-square-foot warehouse and has an annual budget nearing $39 million. Once it can retire the mortgage, it can funnel the $15,000 monthly payment into food and services. Garnering a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, 97 percent of the revenue is dedicated to the food bank's programs.
*What: The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida is partnering with its 150 member agencies to provide Thanksgiving meals to about 15,000 homes in five counties: Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee. It also accepts food, money and in-kind donations throughout the year.
*When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in Fort Myers and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Naples. For donations of frozen turkeys, organizers ask they be dropped off a full week before Thanksgiving so they can plan their distribution and the recipients can thaw the birds for the holiday.
*Where: The Fort Myers branch at 3760 Fowler St., or the Naples branch at 2221 Corporation Blvd.
*Give A Meal: Donate to Feeding America nationally or specifically to support the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Donations can be made at www.bankofamerica.com/give. You can designate donations to the Harry Chapin Food Bank by typing in our "33901" ZIP code.
*For information or to donate, call 239-334-7007 or visit www.harrychapinfoodbank.org/donate.
Bank of America and Feeding America partnering in the Give A Meal Program. For every $1 donated to the program through Dec. 31, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation will give $2, up to a $50,000 match per food bank.
Pereira said the generosity of those who give in November and December helps the food bank through the remaining months of the budget year.
"There's a spirit of giving and tithing during Thanksgiving and Christmas," Pereira said. "Some people are more thankful than usual. They recognize 'Hey, I've got a pantry full of food; I've got family coming over and a turkey in the oven.' And there's not a second thought on how to pay for it."