Beyond the Line at the Tampa Food Bank, a World of Other Need

Analise Wetterling, 12, carries loaves of bread to gift while she and other volunteers operate a drive-through food pantry at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa on July 10.

Analise Wetterling, 12, carries loaves of bread to gift while she and other volunteers operate a drive-through food pantry at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa on July 10. (Ivy Ceballo | Tampa Bay Times)

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July 15, 2020

TAMPA — For the third time in a week, the line of cars at the food bank stretched through the parking lot and onto side streets around the Metropolitan Ministries campus on Florida Avenue.

In a little more than an hour, 120 cars passed through the drive-through where volunteers loaded each with a box of staples such as cereal, rice and pasta and a box with salad and fresh produce. By the time the last cars arrived, the food had run out. Drivers were given a carton of milk and told to come back on Monday.

Dayana Alvarez, 23, got there early enough to get some food. The daycare where she worked closed in April because of the coronavirus pandemic. She needed food for herself, her mother and grandmother.

“Nothing is getting better,” she said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

Food is the first concern for families such as Alvarez’s, but Tim Marks, the head of Metropolitan Ministries, said many of the families in line for groceries face other crises with stimulus money long spent and extended unemployment benefits soon to expire.

The nonprofit has given out $1.2 million in direct payments to 1,200 families to help them keep a roof over their heads and pay bills, but has had to limit the number of recipients to avoid being overwhelmed. Marks expects payouts will soon top $2 million, most of that from funds donated to the nonprofit.

He also is concerned about families who can’t make it to food banks because they don’t have their own transportation, families who already were homeless before the pandemic, and seniors and people with existing health issues who are isolated at home because they are considered at high risk from the coronavirus.

“Hope starts with a meal; it doesn’t end with a meal,” Marks said. “Anyone who sees a food line should know there’s a much greater need than food.”

To help people who are staying indoors because they are at high risk from the coronavirus, the group has launched a home-delivery meal program, which has served 800 meals. It has spent $550,000 on food and given out 210,000 grab-and-go meals. And five months into its pandemic relief effort, the group is still registering families who need assistance with rent and bills, Marks said.

Corralling that effort are 36 case managers, whose job is to try to keep families from becoming homeless. In some cases, that has included temporarily placing families in motels, said spokeswoman Justine Burke.

Of particular concern are families who are protected from homelessness for now by Florida’s moratorium on evictions, but who are falling months behind on rent.

“The families who live from paycheck to paycheck are frightened about how they will ever pay that back,” she said. “In some cases, we can help people stay afloat.”

And while Thanksgiving still seems far off, the nonprofit is planning how it will help struggling families celebrate the holidays during a pandemic. That will include Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and toys for low-income families at Christmas.

“Because of COVID, we’re expecting our holiday season to be the greatest need we’ve ever seen,” Burke said. “We hope the community will continue to support us.”

The group has been buoyed by the award of $2.4 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, intended to rescue the economy during the pandemic. Burke said the money will enable the group to retain staff and offset more than $2 million in non-budgeted spending on coronavirus relief efforts.

Those in line at the Metropolitan Ministries food bank on Friday show how the pandemic has placed once independent families into crisis.

Maria Perez, 50, is still employed as a paraprofessional for Hillsborough County Schools. But her contract is for only 10 months a year and her husband, a handyman, has struggled to get jobs since March.

“It’s my first time here because I’ve always had work,” she said. “Sometimes I feel very emotional because people are sharing what they have and, sometimes, what they don’t have.”

Carrolwood resident Jay Samaro made his third stop at the food bank on Friday. Unemployed after losing his job as a door-to-door salesperson for Frontier, he said his family is getting by only because his mother is paying the mortgage.

“It’s pretty tough,” he said.

Metropolitan Ministries’ new home meal-delivery program came at just the right time for New Port Richey resident Laura Maidenberg, 56. She has Stage 3 renal failure and an auto-immune disease that puts her at high risk from the coronavirus.

She decided to quarantine after shoppers at her local store called her “liberal” and “commie” because she was wearing a mask back in March. Since then, she has ventured out only three times to take her pet to the vet.

“I was stunned at the kindness and outreach that this ministry has in the middle of the pandemic,” she said. “Going to the market and exposing myself was out of the question.”

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This story is part of a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Christopher O'Donnell, Staff Writer, Tampa Bay Times

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