Here's what local food pantries in Central Florida are looking for this holiday season
‘Tis the season for giving, and with Central Florida facing a rise in homelessness and food insecure families, aid organizations have prepared schedules and volunteers to jump into action, but how the community chooses to help can make a big difference.
One such organization is the South Brevard Sharing Center in Melbourne, which holds a free fresh produce market every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and a free food pantry of nonperishables and hygiene items all week long.
Executive Director Pamela Huffman said they are ready to serve the community for the holidays.
“The idea is just to get that food out to people who need it,” Huffman said.
The need is great
According to Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap study from 2021, about 2.2 million Floridians lack access to healthy food, and just over 660,000 are children. Feeding America stated 73% of food-assisted households had to choose between food and their home utilities, while 69% of food bank assisted households had to choose between food and transportation.
In Central Florida, Feeding America found that, in 2020, one in five children lived in food-insecure households.
According to Huffman, her center's current priorities are money, volunteers, and food. Upon hearing this, she said, a lot of people empty their cabinets at home and drop off food items at her center, but not everything helps.
Huffman said a lot of volunteer and staff time goes into sorting out food donations, separating the expired and opened goods that are not fit for consumption from the fresh, sealed items that clients and families can actually use. The contents matter, too.
What they really need
“If it's not expired, and it's consumable food, I'll never say no to it. But if somebody is asking, what kinds of things will you take, I'm not going to ask for sardines or snails, I'm going to ask for pasta products, peanut butter, jelly,” she said.
For individuals experiencing homelessness in particular, Huffman said, there’s one little-known yet extremely useful donation her staff doesn’t see often but wishes they did.
“Can openers are a big thing because unsheltered people in the community generally don’t have can openers,” she said. “We keep separate the pop top items, so they can use those, but those can run out.”
In Orlando, the CEO of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, Martha Are, said that, aside from funding, the most valuable thing people can give is their time, and that the organization’s needs extend outside of the holiday season.
“Believe it or not, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we really don't need anymore. The agencies get flooded with volunteers those two days, during those few weeks. So, think about volunteering, and think about doing it when nobody else is,” Are said.
Different missions, different needs
Another important aspect to remember is that not all communities’ needs are alike.
Cpt. Ken Chapman, unit’s area commander for the Salvation Army of Osceola County, or the Osceola Christian Ministry Center, in Kissimmee, which recently burnt down, said his organization is committed to still serving people experiencing unsheltered homelessness during this critical time of year.
He said the organization could use the community’s help more than ever before, but it has to be the right kind of help.
“So, I want to say this in a way I hope doesn't offend anyone: Please, don't bring us old clothes and furniture and household goods. We'd love it if you give that to our Family Store, so that we can use it with our rehabilitation program, but it will not help the people we're trying to help here now. We need cash donations, non-perishable foods, and new sweaters and blankets to help people stay warm during the colder months,” Chapman said.
For community members who have the giving spirit this year, organization leaders said the best thing to do is to check with them first, before dropping off boxes of goods on their front steps.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for American corps member.