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United Methodist food pantries face trying times

United Methodist food pantries face trying times

Missions and Outreach

Dennis Keys is 75 and just had bypass surgery. He is what people are calling “at-risk” lately.

But on a recent Thursday, Keys – wearing gloves and a face mask – was handing out boxes of free food to needy families in a drive-through operation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Arcadia.

“I put my faith in the Lord, and I believe he’ll take care of me,” Keys said.

Keys and his wife Nancy, former Michigan snowbirds who retired fulltime four years ago, are mainstays of the church’s effort to combat local food insecurity in the rural county.

It’s just one of the dozens of food pantries run by United Methodist churches across Florida.

Some of those pantries are having a tough time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of their biggest problems, cited by food pantry workers at several churches, is simply obtaining food to distribute.

The grocery stores that donate excess food or offer it at a substantial discount are one of their main supply lines. But many of their shelves have been picked clean by hoarding shoppers stocking up on non-perishables.

Another issue is getting volunteers. People are legitimately afraid of getting involved in any operation that involves dealing with the public.

Finally, there’s logistics. How do you get a truckload of cases and cartons of food unloaded, broken down and sorted into family-sized giveaway packages, and handed out to the public while avoiding unnecessary contagion risk?

Many churches have switched to drive-through operations handing out containers to families, instead of allowing needy clients to browse shelves. They have changed from offering sit-down cooked meals to handing out takeout meals, hoping
it will be safer for volunteers and recipients.

They’re also asking for food donations from their congregations and more volunteers.

At Lynn Haven United Methodist in the Panhandle, director of missions, Katie Fanning faces a special problem. It’s the residue from when Hurricane Michael tore through the area in late 2018.

“We saw an increase in food insecurity here,” she said. “Now, they’re losing their jobs on top of that.”

Food parcels ready for dispersal at Lynn Haven UMC

After Michael, Lynn Haven UMC tripled the frequency of its food giveaways from four to 12 times a year, the 30,000-pound truckloads coming monthly from Feeding the Gulf Coast. The Milton-based non-profit supplies food to food pantries and estimates that one in six individuals in the central Gulf Coast needs food assistance.

But its last shipment to Lynn Haven UMC was on March 7, and Fanning isn’t sure when the next one will be or how it will be handled.

Feeding the Gulf Coast “has asked us to do drive-through only,” she said. “We’re not sure right now if we can get enough volunteers together.”

Normally their supplies include fresh produce and frozen meat, but Fanning doesn’t know if they’ll continue to get such food or whether they’ll be able to handle it.

Sam’s Club, one of Feeding the Gulf Coast’s main suppliers, may not have enough food available, and the church may have to cut back to non-perishables only, much of it from the USDA.

“We need to try to continue operations in whatever way possible,” Fanning said. “We haven’t figured the logistics, but we’re determined not to close. If there’s any way for us to still do it, we will.”

At Grace United Methodist Church in Merritt Island, Pastor Steve Hart is keeping its operation going despite decreasing supplies, overseeing gloved volunteers, handing out packages through the door.

The pantry has been open twice since the heightened caution about COVID-19.

“Our shelves are low, but they’re not depleted yet, and we’ve asked for donations, so we’ll see how that goes,” he said.
“The community folks are bonding together pretty well. I’m hoping people will step up.”

A joint pantry run by Wildwood United Methodist and New Covenant United Methodist in The Villages is having more serious supply problems. The operation receives donations to buy surplus supermarket food.

“Now I’ve got plenty of money, but the stores won’t take our orders,” said Don Huggins, who runs the pantry along with his wife, Marlene Huggins.

Meanwhile, people are beginning to lose jobs as the economy shuts down.

Huggins hasn’t seen an increase in demand yet, “But we anticipate that there will be – it’s just a matter of time.”

At Burton Memorial UMC in Tavernier Key, Pastor Kerry Foote has a long-term worry not just about his food pantry, which is probably the largest in the upper Keys, but about the people he serves.

For years, apartments and homes have become increasingly expensive throughout the Keys. Then the 2017 Hurricane Irma demolished much of the area’s low-cost housing.

Now, in the Keys’ biggest industry, tourism, workers are losing jobs as travel grinds to a halt.

“The bulk of our economy is decimated right now,” Foote said.

He said the program’s primary target is the working poor, he said – people the United Way describes as the ALICE demographic, for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, and Employed.

By the United Way’s calculations, 45 percent of the Keys population qualifies. They have jobs, but not enough income to cover housing costs and basic essentials such as utilities, food, and health care.

Meanwhile, runs on the local grocery stores that are Foote’s main supplier have left their shelves bare.

“A normal truckload per week would be 1,000 pounds, but our last one came in with a fourth of that,” he said. “We’re also having a problem ordering from the food banks. We need more food.”

He also needs volunteers and keeping them safe may mean switching to a drive-thru operation.

“To me, the individuals that are working in our food pantries qualify as front-line workers in the pandemic, just like medical personnel,” he said.

Back in Arcadia, Dennis and Nancy Keys shut down their food pantry during the onset of the pandemic, while he was having surgery and she was called back to Michigan for grandchild babysitting help.

But now that his doctor has given him clearance to work – he’s also a part-timer at Publix – they’ve reopened it.

“I’ll be there, and I will have gloves and a mask on because this is what the Lord wants me to do,” Keys said. “If He wants me to feed his people, that’s what I’ll do.”

--William March is a freelance writer in Tampa


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