What Donna Moyer misses most is the children filing into the cafeteria, laughing, playing and sitting down to enjoy lunch.
“We have a big party,” said Moyer, past Exalted Ruler at the Elks Lodge 2731, in Zephyrhills. “It’s a big deal. This year with all this extra nonsense, we can’t.”
COVID-19 upended the typical Feed the Kids Program, a free summer lunch and literacy program.
This year, Moyer, and 10 to 15 volunteers, wave to children in the backseat of cars as their parents pull into a drive-thru food pantry organized at the lodge, at 6851 Wire Road.
Five days a week from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the volunteers hand out about 100 free lunches prepared daily at Zephyrhills’ restaurant, Tubby’s Q and Smokehouse.
The restaurant is the first participant in Operation Feed Pasco, a collaboration between the Pasco County Commission, United Way of Pasco County, Thomas Promise Foundation and the Elks Lodge.
The initiative has a dual purpose: To bolster area food pantries and help restaurants that took a financial loss from the COVID-19 shutdown.
A nonprofit, Harper Valley Son’s Food Pantry based in Wesley Chapel, is independently providing boxes of vegetables, pre-cooked meat, fruit and milk to parents who come to the Elks Lodge.
On Wednesdays, the Elks Lodge also gives out bags filled with craft activities and books to boost reading skills.
On Fridays, Thomas Promise provides meals to carry families through the weekend.
Thomas Promise’s mission is to feed hungry children in Pasco. It typically serves 1,600 students in more than 25 schools, but this year the need is greater because of COVID-19.
The nonprofit is a longtime supporter of the Elks Lodge, so coming together for Operation Feeding Pasco was a natural fit.
“I immediately thought of Elks Lodge because that’s exactly what we do,” said Joe Simmons, executive director of Thomas Promise.
When Moyer realized the Elks Lodge members had to reinvent an on-site program now in its sixth year, she stayed up nights wondering if they could pull it off.
But, Moyer said, “We just kind of got it all together.”
The Elks Lodge is one of many nonprofits and food banks that is helping families that are struggling to pay bills, put food on the table and stay safe during the pandemic.
Even as businesses begin to reopen in Florida, and more people are venturing out to shops and restaurants — a great need for help continues.
Before COVID-19, Feeding Tampa Bay distributed food in its 10-county region to about 600,000 “food insecure” individuals. Since the shutdown, that number has more than doubled, to about 1.3 million.
“The need is continuing to climb,” said Shannon Hannon Oliviero, external affairs officer for Feeding Tampa Bay.
The nonprofit began opening drive-thru food banks, known as “mega-pantries,” in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Polk and Pasco counties.
One mega-pantry now operates at Pasco High School in Dade City.
Volunteers with Make a Difference, a nonprofit in Dade City, distribute food supplied by Feeding Tampa Bay every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., at 36850 State Road 52 in Dade City.
Oliviero said an early survey completed after the shutdown revealed about 70% of those coming to food banks were doing so for the first time in their lives.
Many had either lost their jobs or are on furlough, she said.
She said the help will continue.
“We’re going to be here for as long as needed. That’s what we’re here for,” Oliviero said.
About 700 food bags were given away at the first drive-thru at Pasco High, said Larry Guilford, founder of Make a Difference.
“One woman cried while driving through,” he said. “That’s when we know we’re doing the right thing. That’s telling us it’s needed.”
The same community spirit abounds at the Elks Lodge. Volunteers arrive around 7:30 a.m. Duties include bagging the days’ meals, snacks and crafts. On some days they also prepare frozen meals, such as pancakes and sausage, meat subs and spaghetti. Those are kept in the freezers for use as needed, said Moyer.
On average about 100 meals are distributed for the summer program, but on one recent day about 150 meals were handed out, she said.
“Thank you,” is the phrase of the day, as parents and children accept the food bags.
“It’s an amazing resource,” said Kimberly Mahon, who drove through with her children, ages 3 and 7.
Brad Odell, a Wesley Chapel High School teacher, drove through with his family — but also took home food packages for neighbors unable to leave their home.
“It helps me,” he said, adding, “but I have neighbors that are elderly, and a woman with five children. I try to help out as many people as possible. It makes me feel good.”
Area food banks/pantries
Here is a partial list of food banks operating in Pasco. (Please call ahead to be sure the pantry is open and to find out its hours of operation):
Food Pantry at Emmanuel Ministries
12639 Candlewood Drive, Dade City
For information on hours, call (813) 713-0305.
37240 Lock St., Dade City
Provides fresh fruit, meats, dairy and more
For information, call (352) 567-1432.
Neighborhood Care Center
5140 Sixth St., Zephyrhills
This nonregional, nonprofit offers free groceries and hot meals
For information, call (813) 780-6822.
Life Community Center
6542 Applewood St., Wesley Chapel
For information, call (813) 994-0685.
Christian Social Services
5514 Land O’ Lakes Blvd., Land O’ Lakes
For information, call (813) 995-0088.
Suncoast Harvest Food Bank
5829 Ehren Cutoff Road, Land O’ Lakes
Open third Saturday of the month
For information, call (813) 929-0200.
St. Vincent De Paul
Serves various locations in Pasco
For information, call the district office at (727) 868-8160.
Father and Son Love Ministries
21418 Carson Drive, Land O’ Lakes
Operates a food pantry on Tuesdays, from noon to 2 p.m.; Fridays, from noon to 3 p.m.; and on Sundays, starting at 12:30 p.m.
For information, call (813) 383-8410.
Helping Hands, a food pantry at Atonement Lutheran Church
29617 State Road 54, Wesley Chapel
Call (813) 756-8866 to find out when it is open.
Daystar Hope Center
15512 U.S. 301, Dade City
Call (352) 523-0844 to find out when it is open.
Published June 17, 2020