From an aerial perspective, the thousands of cars lined up for food on a Saturday in a parking lot near Tampa resembled a single, coiling serpent. Yet on the ground each vehicle told a different story of need brought on by the coronavirus. There were scenes that Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay, won’t forget: Tears in the eyes of men and women who never imagined themselves in a food line; a little girl pressing a napkin with a hand-written message—“Thank You”—against the car window.
When many of the area’s tourism-dependent businesses shuttered, the demand for food assistance was staggering, Mantz says. As many as 70% of those in line for 50- to 60-pound food packages were seeking aid for the first time. “Weeks ago they had a good job, they had comfortable prospects.” Some even told him that they once volunteered with his group.
In this hurricane-prone region, responding to emergencies is nothing new for Feeding Tampa Bay, which offers meals, job training and more to hundreds of thousands of food-insecure families in the 10-county Tampa-St. Petersburg area. “If there’s a storm, we run into it,” Mantz says. “We are built for this.”
But no storm compared to the economic upheaval wrought by the coronavirus. Feeding Tampa Bay responded with resilience and compassion. Working with local restaurants, the organization’s two Trinity Cafes pivoted from serving 500 meals a day in person to delivering 8,500 to-go meals to seniors and families with children. With supply chains battered, the organization bought food to distribute for the first time, spending more than $1 million. As volunteers became scarcer, Feeding Tampa Bay hired furloughed workers to fill the gaps.
Businesses responded with crucial support, including $200,000 from Bank of America as part of its overall $100 million commitment to communities affected by the pandemic. Other donations, more than Mantz could count, came from individuals who understood that but for a few breaks it could have been them in line. Ten dollars here, $20 there. “It always struck me when someone sent a note that said, “Look, I can't do much, but here is what I have,’” says Mantz. In the face of incredible generosity, he added, “We’re grateful for the opportunity to help.”