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Filling the gap for Northwest Florida residents who live in food deserts

Between Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties, 24 geographic areas are identified as food deserts or areas with low income and low access to nutritious food. Over 102,000 Northwest Floridians in the four counties are affected.

Various local food assistance organizations, including Feeding the Gulf Coast and Manna Food Pantries, have worked to help those in need throughout Northwest Florida. Feeding the Gulf Coast provides services to those living in food deserts in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, while Manna provides services to 10 ZIP codes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties that are classified as food deserts.

“Providing healthy food is really important, because if you are living in a neighborhood and the only way that you can get to food easily is going down to the corner store and getting an apple, a banana, or broccoli, that’s challenging,” said DeDe Flounlacker, executive director at Manna Food Pantries. “It tends to be more expensive than a regular grocery store.”

Both organizations foster various programs and partnerships that aim to reduce the effects of food deserts in the region. These programs and partnerships work alongside other non-profit organizations, food pantries, health care providers, schools, police departments, case management agencies, and others.

Food deserts in Northwest Florida

One of Manna’s programs is the Tummy Bundles child nutrition program, which ensures that children have access to healthy food over the weekend. The organization delivers to two local elementary schools and the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of the Emerald Coast.

“If you don’t have food, there are so many more struggles that you have,” said Melissa Branton, marketing and events manager at Manna. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a kid and not have access to that food, so it takes stress off of that family that may not know if they can provide food for those kids. It helps the kids not have to worry about where they’re going to get their next meal, which is something that no kid should ever have to worry about.”

Every child who is a recipient of the program receives seven meals to last the entire weekend. Contents of the meals include cups of fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat chicken and tuna, juice boxes, shelf-stable milk, breakfast bars, oatmeal and more. Each meal is high in nutrients and is up to USDA standard guidelines.

Contents of each Tummy Bundles meal
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Contents of each Tummy Bundles package

Manna also partners with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, and the Pensacola Police Department through their school resource officer food program. The program is intended to tide children over until they get home by supplying them with snack items, but is also a chance to provide students and their families with additional food items if necessary.

“Because we have a one-on-one conversation with students about the snacks or about eating, we get a chance to ask them in private ‘are you and your family in need of additional funds or additional food for your home?’” said Officer Mary Williams-Green of the Pensacola Police Department. Green was the school resource officer who initiated the program.

“We have cards that we will give them to give to their family members to call and/or we will call to set up the appointment for the families to go in and receive additional food,” she added.
Feeding the Gulf Coast, a much larger organization, partners with numerous food pantries across the region to provide those living in food deserts with the food they need. Partner organizations like E-Comfort Outreach Ministries provide meals to hundreds of families each week.

Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
E-Comfort Outreach Ministries

“I would say that all [of our recipients] live in food deserts, especially in the community that we serve,” said Pastor Sylvia Epps Tisdale, director and CEO of E-Comfort Outreach Ministries. “This is the poorest community in Escambia County, and they come from all walks of life here. It hurts us to see that they start lining up at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Located off of North Pace Boulevard in the 32505 ZIP code of Pensacola, the organization itself is located near a food desert. E-Comfort, in part, is important to the nourishment of this and neighboring communities.
“Because we’ve been around for 16 years, people always know that we’re here, and they always look for us to have something to give them,” said Tisdale. “Every time we do a distribution, we give out everything that we have.”

Tisdale, who is 70 years old, recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about hunger and the people that are being served in the community. Although she did not make it to the top, Tisdale has inspired those around her and has raised over $23,000 on her GoFundMe page to end hunger in Escambia county.

“I’m glad that this has become an inspiration, especially for those that are serving the less fortunate,” said Tisdale. “You don’t have to stay down, you can climb out of every situation in your life.”

Feeding the Gulf Coast has also worked to ensure that clients in rural areas have similar experiences to those accessing food pantries in urban areas. Through the organization’s Rural Liaison Project, Feeding the Gulf Coast was able to bring 10 new agencies on board last spring to increase food access in these areas.

Pastor Sylvia Epps Tisdale
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Pastor Sylvia Epps Tisdale

Additionally, Feeding the Gulf Coast and Manna have partnered with health care providers to provide those living in food deserts or are food insecure with the nutrition they need. Feeding the Gulf Coast has partnered with Simply Healthcare, which has distributed a total of 35,000 pounds of food along the Gulf Coast feeding over 2,000 families.

Both organizations urge the importance of supplying those in need with not just food, but nutritious food. This not only includes fresh produce but also canned food and dried foods that hit on every major food group.

“I really think one of the best ways that we can combat food deserts is by focusing on giving out healthy food,” said Flounlacker. “When we’re doing food distributions as a community, and we’re giving out ramen noodles and peanut butter crackers, that’s really not healthy. It’s not food that is rich in nutrients, in fact, it pretty much has no nutritional value, so if we can focus our resources on giving out healthy food, that’s so important.”

Flounlacker added that educating individuals on how to properly handle and cook food is also necessary to combat the effects of food deserts.

Other local organizations, including Food Raising Friends and the Alfred-Washburn Center, have also helped serve individuals living in food deserts. If you are interested in volunteering for any of the aforementioned organizations, click on the links above.

If you are someone you know is struggling with food insecurity, visit Feeding the Gulf Coast’s Find Help page. You can also dial United Way of West Florida’s 2-1-1 resource service line by dialing 211.

This story is part of a series about food deserts in Northwest Florida. For more information about food deserts, click here.

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.