Drivers wait patiently as cars inch their way toward the pickup point for the drive-thru food pantry at Atonement Lutheran Church, at 29617 State Road 54, in Wesley Chapel.
Volunteers box the items and place them into a waiting vehicle’s trunk or back seat.
Another group of volunteers is inside the church, wheeling steel grocery carts around tables, “shopping” for food items to fill the food boxes.
They load up their carts with fresh produce, meat, beverages, bread, snacks and desserts to provide a source of food for people who are in need.
The church helps to feed the hungry every Wednesday, said Carla Haberland, who oversees the operation.
She became the “temporary, volunteer director” when the pantry began its weekly giveaways 13 years ago.
She’s witnessing a great need among the people who are dropping by to pick up food boxes.
“We’re getting a lot of families back that hadn’t been for a long time because of the food and gas (prices), Haberland said.
“We’re getting families where maybe before they would come once a month, but maybe now they’re finding they’ve got to come twice a month,” she added.
Scott Lindner, Atonement’s pastor, put it this way: “People are struggling. People that have never struggled before. Rent is an issue for people. It’s gas. It’s groceries. It’s hitting them from all sides.”
On the morning of Aug. 3, within a 45-minute period, 145 families registered to pick up food, Haberland said. “They were backed to (State Road) 54,” Haberland said.
And that was just during the rush.
Vehicles of varied makes and models continued streaming into the church’s parking lot, making way down the driveway line, throughout the pantry’s hours.
The pantry is open each Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Before COVID-19, people would come inside the church, to do their own shopping, Haberland said. They would pick up an allotted number of items, based on the size of their household.
That all changed when the pandemic hit.
Instead of coming inside, everyone now drives through to pick up food boxes.
The drive-thru approach is faster for recipients; the old lines used to take hours.
The church also has experienced a notable uptick in pantry business.
When the shopping was done indoors, the church provided food supplies to about 200 people every week.
Since COVID, that number has soared to between 375 and 400 families each week, Haberland said.
The pantry could use some help, too
“The community is great in donations, but it’s hard keeping up every week,” Haberland said.
“We do get some (donations) from Feeding Tampa Bay,” but she noted, “their supplies have been going down.”
Donations from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are down, too, Haberland said.
When the pantry closed out its records at the end of June, it had 1,413 registered families. It began a new year on July 1 and by Aug. 3, it already has registered 610 families, she said. By comparison, at the same time last year, it had registered 389.
Haberland said the program relies on donations it receives and the commitment of volunteers.
Although food is distributed just one day, it’s a five-day operation, including picking up food donations, accepting donation deliveries, sorting food and so forth.
Its volunteers range from some in their upper-80s to high-schoolers.
About 50 people pitch in, in some form or fashion, but the pantry can always use more help, Haberland said.
It’s especially in need of strong people with good backs, Haberland said.
People who want to help don’t have to put in tons of hours, but they need to know there’s physical work involved — standing, walking, lifting and loading — so would-be helpers should keep that in mind, she said.
Those who pitch in said it’s gratifying work.
“There are so many people who need help and I’m able to help,” said Barb Packer, a volunteer in the program for nine years. Before moving to Florida she was involved in food banks for 20 years.
“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ and that’s what I keep doing,” Packer said.
It goes beyond providing food, she said, noting, there’s also a sense of connection.
“Everybody’s got a story and they want to share it. We have people who are still unemployed, unable to find work,” she said.
People may wonder why that would be true, with so many “Help Wanted” signs all around, but Packer explained that some people can’t find work because of something that’s in their past.
She notices the families that struggle during the summer to feed their children, and the seniors who would feed their pets before feeding themselves.
She’s also aware that some people have unique needs.
“One gentleman, he stays at a rest stop out at (Interstate) 75, so we pack his stuff separately because he has no way to keep things cool or cook,” Packer said.
Some recipients are forced to make difficult choices.
For instance, Packer said, they may have to decide: “Do I get the laundry detergent or do I get food for my kids?”
If some laundry detergent comes in, it can go to help someone with that need, she said.
“I feel for them,” Packer said. “Everybody tells them ‘No.’ There’s so many ‘No’s in their life. So, if we can give joy to them at least while they’re here, they go out with a smile.”
Volunteer Cheryl Ohls, who lives in Wesley Chapel, said she’s happy she can help out.
“I love it here,” said Ohls, who is a member of the Wesley Chapel Rotary Club.
There are numerous food pantries in The Laker/Lutz coverage area (see accompanying box).
In general, they aim to make life easier for those in need.
Christian Social Services, at 5514 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., in Land O’ Lakes, provides bags of grocery from its pantry on Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The amount of groceries provided depends on the size of the family, said Jacquie Petet, executive director of the thrift store and food pantry, which operates out of large red building, off U.S. 41.
She noted that the pantry itself could use some donations of canned foods and other nonperishable items.
Over the years, the pantry has received donations from The Letter Carrier Food Drives to help stock its shelves.
“This year, we got maybe less than half,” she said.
Besides food, the pantry also could use brown paper grocery bags, like the ones used at supermarkets, such as Publix, she said.
The pantry would be happy to accept recycled paper bags.
That way, it won’t have to buy them and can instead use that money for food, Petet said.
Note: Before heading to a pantry, call ahead to verify that it remains open and its current days/times of operation. Also, if you want to help, touch base with individual pantries, to see what they need.
LAND O’ LAKES
- Father and Son Love Free Food Pantry, 21418 Carson Drive, Land O’ Lakes, 813-846-9993: Free grocery shopping for military, first responders and essential workers. The pantry is open on Tuesdays, from noon to 2 p.m. ID is required
- Christian Social Services and Thrift Store, 5514 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., Land O’ Lakes, 813-995-0088. Pantry open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Keystone Community Church, 21010 State Road 54, Lutz, 813-948-4522. The first Wednesday of the month and third Saturday of the month, from 10 a.m. to noon.
- Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, 2348 Collier Parkway, Land O’ Lakes, 813-949-4565. Call the church for details regarding its food pantry.
- Atonement Lutheran Church, 29617 State Road 54, in Wesley Chapel, 813-973-2211. Drive-thru food pantry is open on Wednesdays, from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
- Life Community Center, 6542 Applewood St., Wesley Chapel, 813-994-0685. Call for pantry operating hours.
- Pasadena Baptist Church, 3548 Clinton Ave., Dade City, 352-521-0545. Food pantry: Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
- DayStar Hope Center, 15512 U.S. 301, Dade City, 352-523-0844. Pantry operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
- First Presbyterian Church of Zephyrhills, 813-782-7412. Hot takeout meals, Mondays and Fridays, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Food pantry, Tuesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 5316 11th St., Zephyrhills, 813-782-2813. Food and baby pantry, Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
- Farmworker’s Self-Help, 37240 Lock St., Dade City, 352-567-1432. Call for information.
- Neighborhood Care Center, 5140 Sixth St., in Zephyrhills, 813-780-6822. Call for information.
- Food Pantry at Emmanuel Ministries, 12639 Candlewood Drive, in Dade City, 813-713-0305. Call for information.
- St. Mark the Evangelist Church, 9724 Cross Creek Blvd., Tampa, 813-907-7746. Call for information.
- Make a Difference mobile food pantry, 12311 U.S. 301, Dade City, 352-437-3466. Conducts food distributions, either through pre-packed boxes or farmer’s market style. Call for information.
Published August 10, 2022