MILTON, Fla. (WMBB) — In 2020, Feeding the Gulf Coast provided 33 million meals along the central gulf coast — a 33 percent increase over 2019.
“We saw hospitality workers, we saw service industry folks, who just were not going to work anymore and needed that food assistance and so our communities responded, thankfully,” said Community Engagement and Advocacy Manager for Feeding the Gulf Coast, Kyle Schoolar.
School said Feeding the Gulf Coast relies heavily on their retail pickup program to provide food for people in need.
“When people think about the retail store pickup program they think ‘Oh gosh, this is probably food that needs to be in the trash anyway’ and not necessarily,” Schoolar said. “A lot of times you’ve got products that are out in the stores if you think about holidays or if you think about a new movie that’s coming out, what happens to all of that branded product whenever the movies come out or the holiday has ended? We’re able to capture all of that and get that in and turn that back out into the community if it’s safe to do so.”
Feeding the Gulf Coast has three facilities across the central gulf coast including one in Milton. The spacious warehouse distributes up to 200,000 pounds of food a week. There are two massive walk-in coolers to keep meat, dairy and produce fresh and safe to eat.
“We rely very heavily fortunately on our retail store pick up program that allows us to capture food that otherwise might go to waste ,” Schoolar said. “Being able to get that in and ensure it’s safe to consume, check that packaging, make sure the dates are great and turn that right back out.”
However, pandemic related shortages made it a challenge to collect donations from retail partners.
“However when people are staying at home more and they’re not going out, they’re cooking more we saw shortages I’m sure we remember the toilet paper shortage amongst other shortages that we encountered in 2020 the grocery store shelves got a little bare,” Schoolar said.
That’s when Feeding American began advocating for different food sources to stock their shelves. Schoolar said while federal legislation was being passed to help respond to COVID-19, Feeding America advocated for increases in federal nutrition programs like TFAP.
“Without that advocating and those increases in those programs, we would not have been able to meet the needs of our community so we’re very fortunate for that as well,” Schoolar said.
Schoolar said part of their mission is to speak for the hungry in their communities.
“But particularly we saw during COVID-19, we saw the need to advocate for the strength of our federal nutrition programs,” Schoolar said. “And to really help our elected officials and our governmental program folks understand this is how hunger is impacting constituents, this is how hunger is really affecting your community and so we need your support to help us address it.”
Some of the current problems were brought on by disasters, like Hurricane Michael and the pandemic.
“We’re no stranger to disaster here along the central gulf coast it kind of comes with the territory,” Schoolar said. “Our communities have had to rebuild time and time again in response to storms and it’s really nice to see all of our communities rally together, get behind each other and help each other through these difficult times.”
Schoolar said Hurricane Michael was the first major storm he witnesses from the frontlines.
“I had never seen how a storm can just completely devastate a community in such a way,” Schoolar said.
He said he remembers going out in a box truck — trying to find people who needed food after the storm.
“There was one community, I believe it was way out on Highway 231, that our Feeding the Gulf Coast truck was the first thing they had seen you know two days after the storm,” Schoolar said. “People were riding out on horses to get MRE’s and water to take back to their neighbors.”
Schoolar said they worked with 100 new partners after Michael and had 70 people from different Feeding America branches come out to lend a helping hand.
“You read about things, you see things but you don’t really know until you have gone through something like that how crucial organizations like Feeding the Gulf Coast, food banks, and those partner agencies that come in and really help try to provide emergency food assistance in the community are,” Schoolar said.
Schoolar adds our Gulf Coast communities are good at wanting to take care of each other and adds they want to make sure our communities stay resilient.
As part of Hunger Action Month Nexstar has committed $2 million in cash and on-air time over the next four years.
Next week, WMBB will highlight another aspect of food insecurity from our Partnership with Feeding America.