In society’s modern parlance, it’s called “food insecurity.’’ In simple terms, it’s hunger. And, it’s a big problem in Pasco County, particularly in the COVID-19 era.
Christine Bright, Pasco Unit chair for the League of Women Voters, recently gathered officials from five nonprofit agencies for a panel discussion — “Hidden Hunger in Pasco.’’
Key statistical takeaways:
- Pasco County’s poverty rate for children is about 25%, which is higher than the statewide average of 20%
- 45% of Pasco households fall under the “ALICE threshold’’ — which means Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It reflects households that are barely making it, probably one crisis away from financial wipeout
- Feeding Tampa Bay’s food requests have increased by 360% since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Bright said the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan political organization, believes that its core mission is to educate and advocate about a community’s important issues.
“Hunger in our community is at the top of that list,’’ Bright said.
There are ongoing solutions — even in these challenging, virus-driven times.
Patti Templeton, executive director of One Community Now, which works to eradicate childhood hunger, said the agency has been implementing a “Pack-A-Sack’’ program for 37 elementary, middle and high schools in Pasco County. The program feeds approximately 1,600 children on weekends.
“Children who struggle with hunger have a lower attention span, a greater absentee rate and other ailments, as well,’’ Templeton said. “We are seeing an impact. Teachers always tell us they see a difference in the kids, especially on Monday mornings. This bridges the gap from the food they get during school to the weekends, where there might not be any food available at their homes.’’
With an acknowledgement that some homes might not have electricity or refrigeration, the sacks usually contain cereal boxes, breakfast bars, canned ravioli, peanut butter, crackers, applesauce, raisins and juice, while carefully avoiding the high-carb fillers, such as cookies or chips.
Meanwhile, the Thomas Promise Foundation continues to implement a weekend backpack program through Pasco schools. Diana Thomas, secretary of the foundation’s board of directors, said it began a decade ago when her daughter (then 7) used her school lunch money to buy food items for classmates who didn’t have money.
“That brought to light the food insecurity that was happening in our county,’’ Thomas said. “We are unaware of that. We were mind-blown when we realized how much hunger was going on with our children.’’
The Thomas Promise backpacks provide about 2,000 meals each weekend.
Helpers need help, too
One Community Now and Thomas Promise both rely heavily on donations, grants and volunteers.
“Fundraising is down, but the need has gone up,’’ Thomas said. “We had to rework the way we do things and figure out creative ways to get food to families, but we are making it work because it needs to work.’’
Templeton said 50% of her agency’s funding comes through private support and it is always seeking new donors. The major fundraising event, the annual Hunger Walk, had to be done virtually and produced $58,000 (compared to $117,000 last season).
“It’s important that we have the resources to do this work,’’ Templeton said. “Of the 46,000 kids (in Pasco schools), we estimate that 5,000 of them are chronically hungry, not knowing where their next meal will come from. Resources are important.’’
That fact is perhaps best known by Steffan Davis of Pasco’s United Way organization and its Operation Feeding Pasco program.
The United Way is heavily dependent on employment because workers are asked to contribute from the paycheck.
“Collections are down across the board,’’ Davis said. “A lot of nonprofits were burdened before COVID-19 and now they are experiencing deficits. The challenges are no different for us. Thankfully, the Pasco County government has been incredibly generous during this emergency.’’
That included an innovative program, funded through a $600,000 federal grant, where 12 struggling Pasco restaurants were kept open to feed food insecure citizens. Partnering with 19 nonprofit agencies, the restaurants served more than 250,000 hot meals.
Ashley Jones, nutrition specialist with Pasco County Schools, said the district’s numbers held steady during COVID-19, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOA).
“We had to come up with a way to feed students (with schools going online during the initial virus) and the DOA released some emergency waivers that allowed us to keep on going,’’ Jones said.
Free food was provided at 26 school sites from mid-March through August, accounting for 1.6-million meals.
Those services are vital. The Coalition on Human Needs estimated that 2.5-million Americans have fallen into poverty as a result of COVID-19.
“What you learn is, people who fall into poverty are not necessarily that different than (someone who hasn’t),’’ said Beth Hovind, co-chair of Poverty Action. “The loss of income and resources means not having enough money to meet the needs of the family and that includes food.
“I think we’re learning we have to come up with ways to replace that lost income instead of offering (other services). If the money is scarce, the priorities become rent and utilities, and some of the money to pay that comes from the food fund.’’
There are no easy answers to these issues. But, in Pasco County, Bright said the ongoing conversation and collaboration between nonprofit agencies is helping to create solutions.
“For all of our citizens, particularly school-age children, we realize this is something that must be addressed,’’ Bright said. “If there are unmet needs, we want to figure out a way to help.’’
By Joey Johnston
Published January 06, 2021