Politicians play hunger games with the poor

A Tampa-based food bank feeds hundreds of thousands while D.C. debates drastic cuts in food stamps.

click to enlarge YOU CAN HELP: Volunteers sort canned goods at Feeding America Tampa Bay's warehouse. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
YOU CAN HELP: Volunteers sort canned goods at Feeding America Tampa Bay's warehouse.

As the humidity began to thicken this past Monday morning, the line began to form at the Trinity Café in the V.M. Ybor section of Tampa.

Among those waiting was Paul Loud, who led a relatively stable life in Lakeland until recently. Now divorced and on disability, he’s learning that the $700 he gets each month from the government doesn’t really go too far, not when nearly half of it goes to his monthly rent at the Salvation Army on Florida Avenue.

So free meals at Trinity are critical for Loud, who frequents the facility at least twice a week.

On the same morning, many hundreds of miles north of Trinity, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Senate was voting on the Farm Bill. Depending on the outcome of debate with the House, the legislation could lead to huge cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — the debit cards still referred to as food stamps.

Without those benefits, millions more people may find themselves depending on the resources of organizations like Feeding America Tampa Bay, which provides food to Trinity and more than 600 other charities in West Central Florida.

Here are two perspectives from two different worlds on the challenges of hunger in America.

Feeding America Tampa Bay is the region’s premier food bank. Located in a warehouse in East Tampa, the bank feeds 700,000 people in 10 counties annually from Citrus to Polk to Manatee. It’s one of 202 U.S. branches of Feeding America, which until a name change in 2008 was known as America’s Second Harvest.

Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz came on board last October after running a similar organization in Jacksonville. “Our goal at Feeding America Tampa Bay is to try and recover all available food and move it into the community where it can help families as opposed to being wasted,” he says, referring to the fact that an estimated 10 billion pounds of food is thrown away in the U.S. every year.

The massive warehouse and main headquarters are based a block south of Seventh Avenue on 50th Street, but Feeding America Tampa Bay also runs six other distribution areas in the region. The organization has begun employing mobile pantries to distribute food to pre-selected individuals and families, and works on a number of childhood hunger initiatives. There’s also a robust volunteer program, with over 20,000 people donating hours to the cause in 2012.

The Tampa bank depends on three main food sources: corporate donations from companies like Tropicana and Nabisco; grocery stores (though the news this winter that the Sweetbay Supermarket chain would close 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area definitely hurt, representing more than 20 percent of the 400 stores they were receiving food from); and farmers, who sell surplus for as little as 2.5 to 12 cents a pound via the Florida Association of Food Banks. Another source (one that is currently covered by the Farm Bill) is The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which funds purchase of surplus commodities to stabilize weak agricultural markets; Feeding America Tampa Bay is the local repository for those supplies.

Zach McGee of the Association of Food Banks says that farmers typically sell off foods when market conditions have affected a product after it’s been picked, packed and refrigerated. Situations also arise like the recent warmer-than-usual winter, when some crops came in much earlier than expected, and it would have cost the growers more to store produce in their coolers than to sell it to the Association, which in recent years has received appropriations through the Agriculture Department ($700,000 this fiscal year).

McGee says the best thing about the program is that it enables farmers to do good. “They love to donate, they love to help out, they’re good, salt-of-the-earth people. But they can’t go broke doing that.”

Agencies both big and small depend on Feeding America Tampa Bay, which charges them a handling fee of 18 cents a pound.

“We purchase as much as we can from them,” says Cindy Davis, program director of Trinity Café, which boasts of serving free three-course restaurant-quality meals to over 200 people a day. “Unfortunately for us, they don’t have as much protein in the quantities that we need, but we get a lot of canned goods.”

Trinity is hampered by not having a vehicle that could visit the East Tampa facility on a daily basis to buy fresh foods, but Davis may try to look for a grant for one in the future.

Officials at the St. Pete Free Clinic picked up over 209,000 pounds of donated food from Feeding America Tampa Bay over the last year. The clinic used to have a policy against paying for food, says its director of food bank operations, Ken Murphy, but it has begun doing so on some items over the past year.

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