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Manatee Food Bank took in eight times usual September food donation

BRADENTON -- Two months ago, the floor-to-ceiling warehouse shelving at the Food Bank of Manatee was practically empty.

On Monday those towering shelves were stacked with big boxes marked cereal, dry meals, pasta, snacks and more.

"What a difference," said Food Bank Director Cindy Sloan.

A difference made by the community's response to the Grand Challenge to help restock the Food Bank during Manatee County's September food drive. Initiated by County Commissioner Carol Whitmore and School Board member Julie Aranibar, the challenge urged local groups to raise 1,000 pounds or $1,000 or a combination of the two.

Nearly 150 area businesses, clubs, organizations and schools helped collect 43,025 pounds of food -- eight times the Food Bank's usual September intake -- filling up approximately 350 barrels and receptacles distributed to potential donors.

What's more, $38,720 -- including a $10,000 contribution from Entre Nous -- was raised for the Food Bank to buy more food.

"It was incredible," Sloan said. "There's no question the community has stepped up. Pantries are able to take everything they need to make meals to feed families. This should help to carry us through the next several weeks, but we need the donations to continue."

Manatee County spokesman Nick Azzara agreed.

"It's a good feeling knowing so many responded to the challenge, but the message is there's an ongoing need and a gap to fill until the high donation season begins in November," he said.

September's food drive raised the Food Bank to 65 percent of its capacity after being only 15 percent in August, according to Sloan.

"We were getting desperate," she said. "When we saw the food going out so fast and not coming in, that's when we knew we needed help. The pantries who depend on us were trying to figure out, how do we make this work?"

That concern was eased somewhat by the activity Monday in the Food Bank warehouse. By early afternoon volunteers had built, filled and stacked 100 boxes of food.

"I don't think we've ever put out a plea like that in summer before," Sloan said. "We've only tried to get across the point hunger is 365 days a year and people need help."

The community's response produced one neat coincidence.

When Sloan went to a local company to have more boxes made, the owner had already cut a $500 check for the Food Bank.

"The community's response has been heart-warming," she said. "I hope people realize exactly how much this helps feed hungry kids and families throughout our county. We truly appreciate all the help."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix