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Curbing Community Food Insecurity

By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine

As the nation copes with COVID-19 economic instability, massive layoffs and evictions, food insecurity is rising. A recent report from Feeding America estimated that the number of people experiencing food insecurity in the United States could increase by 17 million in 2020, drastically impacted by an increase in poverty rates and unemployment rates. Food insecurity is driven by many factors including income, employment, race/ ethnicity, age, disability and unexpected emergency.


As Hurricane Sally ripped its way through the Panhandle, destroying homes, food supplies and even forcing nonprofits, shelters and food pantries to shut down for building repairs, the need has only increased. In the state of Florida, 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 5 children face food insecurity at any given time. Feeding The Gulf Coast, an affiliate of Feeding America has seen a 40 percent increase in food insecurity rates in the state of Florida compared to 2019.


Manna Food Pantry has also recorded around a 40 percent increase in food insecurity having served around 600,000 pounds of food to 30,000 people in the 2020 fiscal year compared to 19,499 people served in 2019. Local food organizations have been working around the clock to meet this increase in need while adjusting to CDC guidelines and constant changes like canceling fundraising events, drastically cutting back volunteers, closing retail stores that support their mission, halting food donations, shutting down face-to-face pantries and switching to appointments, drive-thru or delivery networks.


Local organizations are crucial to curbing food insecurity rates as 1 in 4 food-insecure families, according to Feeding America, do not qualify for government food assistance and rely on local pantries and nonprofits. Many of the same families and individuals affected by food insecurity also struggle with issues like affordable housing, medical costs and low wages and benefit from the partnerships founded on the local level to connect them with resources like utility assistance, rent assistance and disaster relief. As the holidays inch closer, many of these organizations would typically see an influx of volunteers wanting to give back by serving meals on Thanksgiving or running food and toy drives for the holidays.


Though COVID-19 has changed the face and capacity of volunteer work, there are still many ways to give back this holiday season. Pensacola Magazine caught up with six organizations in Pensacola to learn about their responses to COVID-19 and Hurricane Sally as well as the best ways to support the work they do for the community.


Feeding The Gulf Coast

As an affiliate of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief network in the nation, Feeding The Gulf Coast is one of the 200 food banks in the country that supplies food to a network of 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. Feeding The Gulf Coast operates three branches and partners with 400 agencies in its 24-county service area.


“It’s been a really hard year to plan,” Aubrey Grier, community engagement coordinator, explained. “Financially, resource wise, distributions, which counties or neighborhoods need the most food—it’s constantly changing. In past crisis responses, the population has been centralized. That isn’t the case this year and there are so many more people in need.”


Grier explained that initial COVID response included altering the childhood nutrition programs to ensure food could still be delivered when schools shut down. As the organization approaches the holidays, Feeding The Gulf Coast is still accepting volunteers in the warehouses to package food following CDC guidelines. Grier also encouraged hosting food drives and food donations for non- perishable items to include in Thanksgiving boxes, as they anticipate an increase in the Thanksgiving distribution.


Manna Food Pantry

Over the last 35 years, Manna Food Pantry has been a dedicated local nonprofit serving vulnerable populations in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties through its food programs and emergency food pantry services. As the pantry acts as an emergency service, people in need can visit it a maximum three times a year to receive five days worth of groceries.


Executive Director DeDe Flounlacker explained how Manna has operated with a closed pantry, temporary ceased food donations and reduced volunteers in the wake of COVID: “It just wasn’t safe for our volunteers to keep the pantry open. There were multiple points of contact at the face-to-face pantry. We tried appointments, a drive- thru and around four different ways to make it work, but each way was still using too many resources and exposure. So, we closed the pantry and focused on our partnerships and programs to get food distributed.”


As Flounlacker explained, Manna created ten new partnerships to continue to deliver and distribute food to low-income elderly populations, children and teens in the backpack and afterschool programs and hospitality and restaurant workers facing layoffs. While Manna is not accepting volunteers at this time, monetary donations and healthy food donations are the best way to help. On Nov. 23 and 24, you can help support Manna at Cordova Mall for the annual Fill The Mayflower food drive with nonperishable items.


Waterfront Rescue Mission

For the last 70 years, Waterfront Rescue Mission has been a beacon of support for Pensacola’s homeless population and at-risk citizens through its emergency shelter, addiction and recovery programs and day services like laundry, showers and lunch.


At the onset of COVID, Waterfront shut its retail doors that financially support its programs and began implementing social distance measures like occupancy limits and temperature checks at the shelter.


“We want our mission to be safe and loving place for people. Before we start teaching or helping someone address issues to get them back on track in life, we want them to be in a safe and loving community,” President of Waterfront Rescue Mission Devin Simmons said. “We have so much more than just a shelter. We have classes and counselors on site and resources within the community. We also feed a lot of people. In 2019, we fed over 200,000 meals to around 3,600 people.”


Although Waterfront Rescue Mission is currently closed for repairs after Hurricane Sally flooded the building and heavily damaged it, Simmons said they are doing anything they can to help within the community. Waterfront Rescue Mission recently helped clean up the facility at Manna after the hurricane left debris around the building and is working on partnerships to provide a Thanksgiving meal to the community. Until the mission is operational to accept volunteers and food donations, Waterfront is currently accepting monetary donations to best support its work in the community.


Food Not Bombs

Since the 1980s, the all-volunteer, independent collective, Food Not Bombs has been providing vegan and vegetarian meals in 1,000 cities across 65 countries in protest to war, poverty, and destruction of the environment. Although previous chapter groups have existed, Pensacola’s current group has been around for the last ten years. The group is dedicated to removing barriers to access food like ID, credit or income checks and hosts a weekly feeding on Friday at MLK Plaza.


“A lot of people have tried to get us to move our location, because they think it’s an eyesore for tourists. The city wanted to initiate a Panhandling ban a few years ago that led to an ACLU lawsuit,” Nathan Marona, a volunteer with Pensacola’s Food Not Bombs, explained. “But we have a right to contest and assert the use of public space to feed people in need. The space is accessible and its serving a consistent homeless population.”


Marona explained that the group has witnessed a growth in the number of people coming to the weekly feeding, especially after Hurricane Sally led several food and shelter organizations to temporarily close for repairs. Food Not Bombs relies on donated food, local farmers, leftover bread and food from businesses and volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering, bring a face mask and a vegan or vegetarian dish to the weekly feeding or message Food Not Bombs on Facebook for more details.

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