LEESBURG — In the last two years, the global COVID-19 pandemic has sickened millions — crippling some families financially — and created an increased need for food assistance.
Local food pantries have been forced to adapt and step up, even while facing challenges of their own, including supply chain issues.
As we begin a new year, food insecurity continues to plague Central Florida and Lake County. Some local pantries are struggling to keep their shelves stocked, while others need donations of time more than anything.
The local hunger picture
Second Harvest’s Director of Philanthropy Dan Samuels says that the food insecurity landscape in Central Florida is worse now than it was pre-pandemic.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida is a private, nonprofit organization that collects, stores, and distributes donated food to more than 550 feeding partners in six Central Florida counties including Lake County.
“Right now in Lake County, and really across all of our communities, about one in seven individuals is at risk of facing food insecurity,” Samuels said. "And it’s actually about one in every five kids at that same risk."
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Food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
This change has come amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have been able to stabilize their lives and get back on their feet, Samuels said, but there are others that are experiencing the need for food assistance for the first time.
Second Harvest measures and tracks food insecurity with the "food finder" tool on their website, which helps people search for food assistance.
In March 2020, just before the pandemic hit in the United States, Second Harvest was seeing about 35 searches a day, according to Samuels. In late March and April, that number was closer to 1,500 searches a day.
Now, even two years later they are still seeing an average of between 100 and 200 searches a day.
“We are still in the midst of a disaster – a disaster that’s been going on for almost two years now that has really changed how we are serving the community and the amount of people that we are serving,” Samuels said. “So as an organization we are really focused on what the long-term recovery effort looks like and how we meet that need.”
The Salvation Army’s food pantries need help
The Salvation Army food pantries of Lake and Sumter Counties are in a state of crisis trying to keep up with an increased demand in the new year.
“We are reaching out to the community to help us to meet those needs," said Major Marie Harris, PR/Volunteer Coordinator at the Salvation Army Lake & Sumter Counties. "You know this is a hard time for everybody and we got through Christmas but now here we are in January and things are going up, costs are rising, and people are having a hard time buying food and paying all their other bills."
Harris says that with all of the extra people needing assistance they need to restock their pantry. Both monetary and food donations are welcome.
Salvation Army needs the following non-perishable foods:
Canned meats; tuna, chicken, spam, etc.
Canned stews; Dinty Moore, chicken & dumplings, etc.
Canned pasta; spaghetti & meatballs, ravioli, Spaghetti O’s, etc.
Macaroni, spaghetti, noodles
Boxed dinners such as Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper
Pop Tarts, breakfast bars
Pancake mix (that uses just water)
Peanut butter and jelly
Harris says that other donations like soap, shampoo, razors, shaving cream and deodorant are also always welcomed.
“We are thankful for our community and their outpouring of love and care for those that are in need,” she said.
Supply chain issues impacting food distribution
Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic affected food insecurity in the community, but supply chain issues have forced our local organizations to adapt.
Second Harvest has had to be more flexible and innovative when it comes to food distribution.
“For instance, typically around Thanksgiving, we give out turkeys," Samuels said. "We knew that there was a supply chain issue with turkeys this year so instead of just giving out turkeys we also gave out some chicken, and some ham, and so it hasn’t hindered our ability to serve the community it just has caused us to be more flexible about what specifically we are giving out."
It has also impacted the type of products Second Harvest purchases because they are not always readily available.
Grocery stores feel that ebb and flow in the ability to get certain food items and as a result, Second Harvest does too.
About 50% of the organization's food comes from its grocery store partners.
So if they're struggling to keep food on the shelves, which has been the case multiple times during the pandemic, they will receive fewer food donations.
“But thanks to our community who have been so incredibly generous, we are able to work through those ebbs and flows and purchase food to keep up with that need in the community," Samuels said. "No matter what the supply chain has been doing we have been able to keep up with it or at least work on keeping up with it."
For every dollar donated to Second Harvest, they can provide about nine dollars worth of food out into the community. They are able to do this through their relationships with the food industry. They are not paying retail, most of the time they aren’t even paying wholesale oftentimes it’s either free or at-cost. All they need is the money to physically transport the items from wherever they are to their warehouse so they can distribute them to our local pantries.
“We’re able to do so much with so little and that’s why we always tell people if you want to make an impact, and you want to make a big impact, making a monetary gift is the way to do it,” said Samuels.
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Not every local food pantry needs help; some need donations and volunteers
Not all of our food banks and food pantries are experiencing a food shortage.
For instance, Lake Cares Food Pantry and the Leesburg Food Bank have been doing well keeping up with demand in the new year, but they’re always looking for a helping hand.
Right now Lake Cares has about 200 volunteers that are working to keep everything moving forward. Last year those volunteers dedicated 23,381 hours of their time.
“There are always volunteer opportunities here at Lakes Cares," said Ruthie Haffner, Director of Development at Lake Cares. "We rely heavily on our volunteers to keep things moving.”
Lake Cares is always looking for donations to feed the hungry. They are associated with Second Harvest and purchase food from them at a discounted rate.
Haffner says that they put a high priority on fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy when they purchase their food because studies have shown that people living in poverty do not always have the access and funds to be able to buy nutritious food on their own.
Meanwhile, the Leesburg Food Bank has been very lucky when it comes to volunteers. They are open three days a week and average 25 volunteers a day.
“We don’t need help at the present moment but I’ll take any help I can get because I know I’m going to need it in the future," said Don Diamant, President and Board of Directors and Daily Operations at the Leesburg Food Bank. "Right now we’re pretty well set if the food keeps coming in the way it’s coming in."
Want to help?
Salvation Army accepts donations at at give.salvationarmyflorida.org. Prospective donors can also contact Harris at 352-365-0079 ext. 26761.
To donate to Second Harvest, visit their website at feedhopenow.org.
Lake Cares Food Pantry accepts donations at lakecares.org.
To donate to the Leesburg Food Bank, visit in person or send a check to their location at 1801 W Main St.
Lake Cares is also hosting a concert Friday, February 11th, and a portion of the proceeds will be going to their food pantry. It is the 50th Anniversary ‘American Pie’ Tour with Don McLean. To purchase your tickets visit tickets.thevillages.com/9152/9153.
This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Lake County food pantries seek donations, volunteers amid COVID