Feeding Tampa Bay wants to do more than feed needy families

By Christopher O’Donnell

TAMPA — A free meal from a food bank can serve as an instant boost for a family struggling to afford to be able to eat.

But when that family still needs help the following day, and the following week, free meals alone are not the answer.

That’s the theory behind a major shift in the mission of Feeding Tampa Bay, which on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan that aims to end hunger and food insecurity in the Tampa Bay region by 2025.

Feeding families will remain at the heart of the organization’s mission, but it also wants to tackle the issues that leave an estimated 625,000 people in the bay area struggling to afford healthy meals.E

One new idea is to set up a jobs training program that will pay up to 130 people a year to learn new skills. There will be more hot-meal centers set up like Trinity Cafe, placed throughout the 10-county region the group serves where families can not only get a meal but also find help from other nonprofits.

Feeding Tampa Bay also hopes to establish a new headquarters in the Tampa area that will at least double the 80,000 square-foot food warehouse operation it runs on Adamo Drive.

“We have been there for many, but our imagination needs to go further,” executive director Thomas Mantz said. “There is no one in our community who is beyond our reach or beyond our care. They’re all deserving of our love and our support.”

It is the region’s largest food rescue and distribution organization with about 85 employees and an average of 20,000 volunteers each year. Its changes reflect a national trend away from the traditional model of food banks run by church and faith-based groups that provide boxes of groceries.

Many of those who need help are working families who don’t have time to visit churches during working hours, Mantz said, and also are often embarrassed to stand in food lines. Instead, he envisages food pantries being placed in hospitals, schools, doctors’ office and even at bus stops.

There will likely also be more hot meal services, which the group started offering after its merger with Trinity Cafe, a free restaurant at 2801 N Nebraska Ave. that serves more than 500 hot meals to the homeless and needy in two Hillsborough County locations.

Pinellas and Polk counties and south Hillsborough are the likely areas for new hot-meal centers. Kitchens could be set up in vacant restaurants or the group could share premises with other care agencies.

“Those Trinity cafes will become community empowerment centers that allow us to bring folks together,” Mantz said. “Imagine that people can come in just for a bag of groceries; imagine people can come in and get a takeout meal.”

The United Way is among the groups expected to work with Feeding Tampa Bay. Its recent in-depth study found many working families struggling to afford food, healthcare, transportation and other expenses. Roughly 67 percent of Florida’s jobs pay less than $20 an hour, equivalent to a salary of about $42,000. Yet the study calculated that the budget for a family of four runs to almost $60,000 a year.

“That’s why we have to evolve our narrative about who is in need in our community,” said Suzanne McCormick, CEO of United Way Suncoast.

Feeding Tampa Bay has already hired an employee to run the job training program, which is scheduled to launch this summer. It will train people for jobs in warehousing, truck-driving, customer service and food preparation. It is aimed at those who might struggle to find better paying jobs such as youth aging out of foster care, Boys and Girls Club graduates, those with a criminal record and young people with disabilities.

The program pays participants about $11 per hour. Some places have already been funded through scholarships from Amazon and other companies, Mantz said.

Plans for a new headquarters are still in the works. The organizations has spent about a year looking at locations but is struggling to find one that has the combination of warehouse and office space that it needs. Mantz said the group may need up to 200,000 square feet on a 15-acre site for its future operations. That would include space for community partners to provide social services to families, an onsite free grocery store and a 10,000 square-foot kitchen.

Feeding Tampa Bay will keep looking for an existing site, but Mantz said other food bank organizations have been able to build new premises at a reasonable cost.

“Our research with other food banks is we’re going to have to build it,” he said.

Matt Knott, president of national food bank group Feeding America, said Feeding Tampa Bay’s new direction makes sense as a response to the changing needs of those they serve:

“The food bank of the future will be very focused on providing fresh and nutritious food.”

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