FORT MYERS – Once a month, families begin lining up in the early morning hours at Tice UMC.
The earliest arrivals will wait nearly four hours for the mobile food pantry truck from the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. Once the truck pulls up, food bank staff members and church volunteers distribute boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, hamburger meat and rice. Sometimes chicken is handed out. Each family leaves with about 40 pounds of food. The whole process takes two hours or less.
Most recipients walk to the church. They are low-income workers, often migrants who pick produce or do construction jobs. Some are among the community’s homeless population.
"They will come out with shopping carts and baby strollers," says Traci Perry, a church volunteer who organizes the food giveaways at Tice UMC.
Perry makes an early appearance herself. Her first view on some mornings is nine or so empty strollers in a row, left there by their owners as place holders for the long wait.
The mobile pantry serves upwards of 300 families each month. The June tally listed by Perry was 277.
The church aids another 150 to 160 families at its weekly giveaway, separate from the mobile pantry. Families generally can participate in the church's food pantry program once a month. Exceptions can be made in some cases.
"There is great need," Perry says.
The families served through Tice’s efforts struggle to put food on the table, she adds. They are paid low wages or nothing at all on rainy days when construction or farm work is halted.
"They need the help," Perry says.
Usually the mobile pantry is sponsored by an area business, such as Walmart or Target. In June, Wells Fargo stepped forward. Wawa will help out in August.
There is no sponsor for July, so Perry says the church is partnering with Tice Elementary School for a giveaway planned at the school.
The church is looking for more businesses to sponsor the mobile food distribution in coming months.
The mobile pantry is a program started by the Harry Chapin Food Bank, formerly operated as the Lee County Food Cooperative. The organization is the exclusive distribution agent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for southwest Florida.
Chapin was a singer and songwriter who died in a car crash in 1981. Among his hits were "Taxi" and "Cat's In the Cradle." His family and his band still hold an annual concert in Boca Grande to benefit the food bank, according to the organization's website.
Perry says the mobile pantry operation is amazing to see. The food bank's trucks are equipped with individual compartments for food items to enhance efficiency in boxing up and handing out food staples, she says.
Last month, the pantry was probably at the church only about 90 minutes, Perry adds.
For the church's weekly pantry, about 20 to 25 volunteers arrive around 7:30 a.m. and two or three drive trucks to the Harry Chapin Food Bank. The trucks return with food by 10 a.m., and volunteers bag up the items for giveaway at noon.
Some days the food bags also hold extras, such as toilet paper, shampoo and toothpaste.
"We have a fantastic group of volunteers," Perry says. "We've got it down to a 'T.'"
Before the pantry opens, she says, "We'll sit down for lunch together and say prayers."
Perry has been a church member since 2008, when her three children attended a weeklong Bible study.
"They were so excited about going to church that week," she says. They begged her to come visit the youth pastor.
"As soon as I walked through the door I knew that was where we should be," Perry says.
The food pantry has been a longtime mission at the church. It began in a Sunday school room with operations overseen by two women. It has grown greatly since then.
"Now we have to do it in our fellowship hall," Perry says.
But the rewards are great.
"Just to see the smiles on their faces, especially the children, as they say, 'thank you,' it is a blessing," she says. "It feels so good in your heart. The children get so excited to see what they get."
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.