Local food pantries are worried that a new government contract that forces them to rely on a provider outside of the county will cause logistical issues and the worst possible outcome — low-income residents without food.
A new U.S. Department of Agriculture contract that took effect Oct. 1. has local officials and food bank directors concerned. It names Feeding Tampa Bay as the sole provider of food under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, but the organization doesn’t have any distribution centers in Manatee County.
“The logistics become very difficult for them,” said Jim Shilling, deacon of food pantry services at the 53rd Avenue Church of Christ in Bradenton. “Think about accidents, think about road closures. They’re 60 miles away.”
Every Wednesday, Shilling oversees the distribution of about 200 boxes of food. Impoverished residents say they’re concerned that the food they depend on might not show up one day.
“I have six kids. My husband is away right now, so I’m doing this all on my own, with help from my mom,” Whitney Rife said while standing in line to receive her own box Wednesday morning. “The food that we have for my children comes from here, so it helps a lot. It helps tremendously.”
“We can’t go all the way up to Tampa to get it ourselves, so it’s hard,” said another Bradenton resident who uses the boxes every week to help feed her six grandchildren.
Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia volunteered at the church on Wednesday, passing out food and listening to concerns from those in line.
“It’s a basic need and you can tell by the long lines here that a lot of people in our community don’t have it,” Servia said.
The Board of County Commissioners met Wednesday afternoon to discuss the changes to local food bank distribution with leaders from Feeding Tampa Bay and Meals on Wheels Plus of Bradenton.
“This is very emotional, but we’re kind of in the middle of a big fight here,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
Meals on Wheels Plus lost the USDA contract and has not partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay, representatives said. Due to the transition and the greater distance involved, smaller pantries have not opted to partner with Feeding Tampa Bay.
At its height, Meals on Wheels Plus served more than 100 pantries in Manatee County, but fewer than 30 local organizations have partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay since it took over the USDA contract.
“Our model is built on the ability to move food through our partners, as well as other resources. I want to be clear that we’re willing to work with as many groups as want to work with us,” said Thomas Mantz, president and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay.
But the system isn’t perfect, as evidenced by volunteers from local food pantries who say the change has crippled their operations. Community providers explained that they can’t afford to travel to Tampa to pick up food, instead of visiting the local Meals on Wheels Plus site.
“My concern is that our shelves are half bare. We are partnering (with Feeding Tampa Bay) because we have a commitment to feed the people that show up at our door, but we’ve heard that other food pantries in Parrish are too small and don’t have the capacity to store these deliveries,” said Kathie DeCarlo of Parrish Methodist Church.
“Let’s come up with a plan that’s going to work and be beneficial for the organizations in our community,” said Shirley Pearson, executive director of the Mt. Carmel Resource Center.
After listening to the complaints and concerns from some of the 50 members of the public at Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners pointed to an opportunity for Meals on Wheels Plus and Feeding Tampa Bay to work together. They engaged in conservation before, but the relationship soured at some point.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh urged Mary Beth Phillips of Meals on Wheels Plus to meet with Mantz, who said he would only “consider” that request.
“Take advantage of the opportunity to work with one another,” said Commissioner Reggie Bellamy. “As adults in the room, sometimes we have to humble ourselves and do what’s best for the needy.”
“We are willing to continue to make sure our model meets whoever needs it,” Mantz said. “Change is difficult for everybody. We’ll continue to look at what the best way to serve the community is.”
In the meantime, commissioners and smaller pantries agreed that other local organizations must come together to fill in the existing gap of service.
“We do see the difference in service, and something has to give. We can come together to serve our community,” said Alberta McIntosh, president and CEO of Allean’s Loving Care. “We can come together to serve our community.”
Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace suggested the county get involved by promoting the collection of food donations for the Food Bank of Manatee, which is run by Meals on Wheels Plus.
“I don’t think the business model works for small food pantries in the community,” she said. “We’re smart enough to be able to figure out a way to motivate people to throw cans in a yellow bin.”