While many families are planning their holiday meals, for many others what they’re having remains up in the air – and dependent on local food banks.
Escambia County’s poverty rate is around fifteen percent, according to the latest available Census data. In Santa Rosa the figure is close to eleven percent.
“Hunger in our area is a little bit higher across the three states; we see about one-in-six people who face food insecurity at some point during the year,” said Kyle Schoolar, External Communications and Volunteer Manager for Feeding the Gulf Coast, formerly Bay Area Food Bank, which serves two dozen counties in the Florida Panhandle, south Alabama, and south Mississippi.
“[When] people think of a food bank, sometimes they think of what’s going on at their church, or a feeding program,” said Schoolar. “We help sustain programs like that.”
In 2015, Feeding the Gulf Coast distributed around 20 million pounds of food, which translates to 1.7 million meals in Escambia County, and 679,000 in Santa Rosa. The consensus from Feeding the Gulf Coast and other organizations is that the people of northwest Florida are very generous when it comes to fighting hunger in their backyard.
“We’re very blessed because so many people think about giving food right now because of the holiday season; but, the thing to always remember is that Manna gives away food every day,” said Manna Executive Director DeDe Flounlacker. In 2016, Manna provided about 500,000 pounds of food to just over 21,000 people, about 700 people more than in 2015.
“One of the things we’ve been focused on is trying to work with different partners in the community, to address childhood hunger [and] senior hunger as well,” Flounlacker said. “Even though we had an increase last year of more people needing our help, we’ve seen much more food going out through our partnerships.”
The fight against hunger among kids has led to a number of programs at both Manna and Feeding the Gulf Coast, such as Manna’s “tummy bundles” at Montclair Elementary School.
“It’s thought of as a ‘backpack of food,’ but it’s actually seven meals that go home with these children on Friday afternoons,” Flounlacker said. “We’re [also] in our fourth year of Santa Rosa Backpack for Teens program. And we’re getting ready to deliver some boxes of food to those kids while they’re out on break.”
Manna’s recent “Fill the Mayflower” event, in which donations fill the trailer of an 18-wheeler loaned by the moving firm Mayflower, collected enough food for more than 52,000 meals.
While Manna does not get any state or federal dollars, Kyle Schoolar at Feeding the Gulf Coast says they receive funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Florida Department of Health.
“For example, our after school snack program, and also feeding during the summertime,” Schoolar said. “Because, unfortunately in our area a lot of people are dependent on free and reduced lunch. During the summertime when school’s not in session, those are meals that these kids are missing.”