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Major demand being felt this week at St. Joseph Food Pantry in Bradenton

BRADENTON -- The grocery bag didn’t contain a lot, but Barb Zavala would make it work.

“Let’s see -- ham, soup, bread, stuffing, biscuit mix, corn, cranberry sauce, crushed pineapple ... ,” said the 55-year-old, rummaging through the contents outside St. Joseph Catholic Church’s Food Pantry. “I can probably take this bag and a little bit more canned goods and feed 10-15 people.”

Even if no one could afford a turkey for Thanksgiving Day.

Zavala, who recycles scrap for a living, was undeterred.

The resourceful daughter of a railroad man knew how to make a little out of nothing.

“If you dress up that canned ham with a pineapple, makes it real good,” said the Toccoa, Ga., native. “There’s other people going to drop by with kids because they don’t have anything either.

“We’ll do something. There will be a Thanksgiving.”

Her words resonated with many lined up outside the Food Pantry for a bag of groceries.

More than 830 people had been there Monday.

At least that many were expected Tuesday.

Shirley Meyers was among them.

“It means everything,” said the senior citizen, a Pittsburgh native who lives alone. “If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Same for Willie Jordan, a disabled tire mechanic.

“It’s a blessing, thank the good Lord,” said the Wilson, N.C., native said.

After 30-plus years of distributing food to the poor, Food Pantry volunteers say the need has never been greater.

The number of people it is serving is up 30 percent over a year ago, according to Deacon Bob Nimon.

“We’ve got people, middle-class families, coming for the first time more than we did last year,” he said. “Either they’re out of work or working part-time jobs and need something to supplement it.”

By noon today, more than 2,300 people will have availed themselves of the Food Pantry’s services since Monday.

“We can tell the need is urgent. We can tell on a daily basis. It’s even more so on a holiday like Thanksgiving,” said Sue Gillis, a volunteer for three years.

Behind her, several of Tuesday’s 25 volunteers stuffed grocery bags in an assembly line.

Each person manned a station stacked with cans of pork-n-beans, cranberry sauce and corn, or potato mix, stuffing mix, dry soup, bread and cake mix.

Inside, volunteers included a canned ham or bag of chicken parts with the grocery bags.

“At least they’ll have something on their Thanksgiving table,” Gillis said. “We can provide that, as little it is, but it’s better than what they have.

“Hopefully, they can buy a turkey.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.