Their fax machine wasn’t working.
That’s typically a headache at any business. But this outage was cutting off a lifeline.
Such was my introduction last week to The Food Bank of Manatee, and it couldn’t have been more humbling and inspiring. Manager Cindy Sloan was in high gear — her norm, I soon learned. Without a fax, they couldn’t receive applications from the churches, food banks, sheriffs department, Manatee Glens and 95 agencies that reach out to the food bank to feed Manatee’s destitute.
Rather than wait and risk a pressing application, Cindy reached out to those in most immediate need. As we stood there soaking it all in, a pastor brought in a young, almost emaciated woman who needed food for her children. And she was terrified, knowing how embarrassed her husband would be.
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Cindy’s voice was consoling and matter-of-fact at the same time. “We’re here to help — and don’t think that makes you any less a person,” she stated. With the pastor’s arm to lean on, the woman filled out the needed paperwork and left with a week’s worth of nourishment.
The Food Bank, under the auspices of Meals on Wheels Plus, has never been more essential in our community. In August alone, they sent out 29,982 pounds of food in emergency baskets, and 227,904 pounds of food for agencies and churches to distribute. That’s more than a quarter-million pounds of nourishment — and every ounce was needed by someone who has hit hard times.
“We distributed 1 1/2 million meals last year, and the need has multiplied this year,” Cindy told us. “And we’ll accept just about anything we can give away, to help these families.”
Each application asks for details of all family members, their background, expenses and “Emergency Reason for Need — Must be Current.” From those, Cindy and her staff of five tailor baskets and donations. A couple who had to take in their grandkids suddenly had eight mouths to feed, and they received some extra clothing along with their food basket.
Our local grocery stores play an amazing role in all this. Every morning, Food Bank’s two drivers make a Publix and Sweetbay run, picking up food that hasn’t expired, but appears to be excess. Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie, local bakeries — they all contribute. And thanks to Darryl Turner’s generous donation, Food Bank has refrigerated trucks that can also pick up pallets of food from area farms.
They still need more.
“Churches are running out of food before the line is served each week,” Cindy said. “Have you been to the One-Stop Center? The first-time visitors are overwhelming.”
I was at the Food Bank with County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who has made a personal mission out of getting more help to the hungry. She is working out a system with more local farmers to get their leftover food to the Food Bank and other local shelters.
“I guess it’s the nurse in me, but I have to find a way to make a difference,” Carol said. Tears welled as we watched another family signing up for help. “I came from this kind of background, and my goals have always been to help the less fortunate.”
Carol has that same compassion for animals, large and small. And that love is helping add another layer of help from the Food Bank and Meals on Wheels. As unemployment soared in Manatee County, so has the number of abandoned dogs and cats. Families can’t afford to care for them anymore. And it soon became obvious that other families are trying to feed their pets from their emergency food allotments.
The application forms now include a spot to indicate if pet food is needed. And Carol is working on a deal with Winn-Dixie to get all their damaged or open pet food containers for the food banks and animal rescue agencies.
How else can we help? You can volunteer like Wally, a retiree who’s been bagging food almost every week for seven or eight years now at the Food Bank. You can donate just about anything, from a bicycle to diapers to puppy chow. They’ll find a taker.
Just last week, the Manatee Kennel Club donated $2,500 and one member donated another $1,000 to the Food Bank. They didn’t send out a press release or ask for a headline. I overheard Kristen Theisen, Meals on Wheels development director, telling Cindy about the gift.
“When we learned hungry families were taking their own food for their animals, we knew we could help,” Kennel Club member Stu Wagner explained. He was surprised that I asked — it was the least they could do.
As we got ready to leave the Food Bank, I asked Cindy how she had chosen this work. “I’m a helper,” she said, shrugging. “I love to cook and feed my family. Now I feed Manatee County.”
With unemployment at a record 12.2 percent, Manatee County is hungry. If you can help, please give Cindy a call at 747-4655.
Joan Krauter, the Herald’s executive editor, can be reached at (941) 748-0411, ext. 2000.