Meeting a Grand Challenge to feed the hungry

September 6, 2013 

Food Bank director Cindy Sloan looks on Wednesday as Rhonda Page talks about the impact the agency has made on her life. Vin Mannix/Bradenton Herald

Despite a rebound in the economy, more people than ever endure hunger. The Food Bank of Manatee is now struggling to assist the working poor, the unemployed and the homeless while distributing food to more than 100 community pantries, soup kitchens and churches.

Cindy Sloan put the situation in stark terms, having witnessed the demand in her six years with the Food Bank of Manatee: "When I came on board, donated food amounted to about 1 million. This year, we'll probably hit 4 million. Demand is higher than donations."

This month marks an annual concerted effort to restock the food bank, depleted over the summer to the point of bare shelves. The Grand Challenge of 2013 asks companies and organizations to collect 1,000 pounds of food or donate $1,000 to the food bank -- or any combination of the two.

The Mosaic Company Foundation immediately stepped up to the plate, so the speak, and put up $100,000 to match community donations through this month. And the Manatee Community Foundation chipped in $30,000 to help meet that match. Our thanks to both.

Food donations serve some 65,000 people in Manatee County -- mostly working poor, many with part-time jobs that pay -- literally -- poorly.

Like 52-year-old grandmother Rhonda Page, divorced and raising two grandchildren on part-time employment.

"It's an incredible blessing," she remarked about the food bank at the public announcement of the Grand Challenge two weeks ago. "This has taken so much pressure off me and given me the freedom to be able to provide for my kids, to get school supplies or shoes or clothes. I'm really grateful ..."

Page's emotional thanks brought moist eyes to many in the room that day -- a genuine reflection of the compassion for those dealing with hard times.

More and more older adults -- particularly between the ages of 60 and 69 -- are living in poverty and hunger, as detailed in a Monday Herald report.

"Food insecure" is the new term for that plight.

Sloan, the Food Bank director, revealed that 700 older adults are served daily by the Senior Meals on Wheels program here.

Blane Turpin, the director of Food Bank client programs in Manatee County, described the need: "People don't realize how much senior hunger has grown. Demand from seniors has definitely gone up, The food coming in is going back out as soon as it comes in."

But donations are down, too, Turpin noted, and some former donors are now Food Bank customers -- a troubling role reversal.

Florida ranks ninth in the nation in the percentage of food-insecure seniors with almost 17 percent of the population above the age of 60 unsure about the source of their next meal. With Manatee County's high senior population, the need is great.

Thursday's Herald Washington Bureau report on this issue pointedly stated that food insecurity has continued at almost record levels for five consecutive years among all American households, not just seniors. One in five families with children are in that hungry population.

The Food Bank of Manatee's Grand Challenge lasts through September. Food collection barrels are available by calling 941-747-FOOD (3663).

Food drive kits can be found on foodbankofmanatee.org, or email Cindy Sloan at csloan@foodbankofmanatee.org.

Among the most urgent needs are baby food, infant formula, rice, beans, canned goods, pure fruit juice and healthy cereals. Anyone can deliver donations directly to the Food Bank, 811 23rd Ave. E., or at Renaissance at 9th, 1816 Ninth St. W. Donation barrels can also be found all across the county as many businesses have joined this community food drive.

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