Many furloughed workers and students are facing unexpected food scarcity and economic upheaval in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local organizations are boosting their relief efforts to help keep the community fed.
The Gainesville chapter of the Salvation Army and the Civic Media Center are among those on the frontline. The two have provided resources to those in need since before the pandemic began, but with even greater need now than before, they are expanding their services.
The CMC has offered its space to host a Free Grocery Store since Fall of 2019. The service attempts to connect those in need with one weeks’ worth of produce in order to combat food insecurity in Gainesville, said Renz Torres, co-coordinator of the event.
Food insecurity is the struggle with physical or financial obstacles that prevent people from maintaining access to food. This affects communities like low-income and homebound populations who may not be able to afford groceries or commute to acquire them.
The CMC has begun to offer delivery to assist those who are sheltering in place or self-quarantining, Torres said. Food is sent out on Tuesdays from 3 to 5 p.m.
“We’ve had more of an impact on the community by doing this outreach and servicing a need that isn’t offered by a lot of other pantry-style food distributions,” Torres said. “The homebound population is particularly harder to reach especially since people are on the other side of the digital divide.”
More people rely on the service now than before the pandemic began, Torres said. Due to high demand, the CMC expanded its delivery service to include Fridays. Households are limited to one delivery per week and must call to schedule.
“We’ve gone from serving maybe 40 people a week prior to coronavirus to now serving 300 to 350 people per week all through delivery,” Torres said.
The Salvation Army hosted a food drive Wednesday evening at its office at 639 E. University Ave. The event was held in the evening in order to serve people who couldn’t take time off of work during the morning or afternoon, said Priscilla Gonzalez, who helped distribute food.
The drive offered staple resources like rice, beans, corn, green beans, pasta, pasta sauce, paper towels and hair conditioners. By the end of the event, more than 117 people were served, according to Corps Officer of Gainesville’s Salvation Army Maj. Hank Harwell.
The food drive protected its volunteers and recipients by ensuring that no physical contact took place. Recipients drove up to the office and opened their trunks, which Salvation Army employees filled with bags of goods.
“We know that there are a lot of people who have lost hours at their workplace or have had to be laid off or furloughed, yet the bills continue to come,” Harwell said. “By doing this, we hope to be able to help alleviate at least one stressor that the community is facing.”
Apart from the services like The Salvation Army’s food drive and the CMC’s Free Grocery Store, additional tools have been made available for the public to keep up with relief efforts in their area.
The members of the Facebook group “Gainesville Free Food” update its page with information about locations and events that offer free food to the public whenever made aware of new local resources. There have already been 13 new postings on food resources in the area since the group was created on April 27.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried also created a statewide hotline in partnership with the Division of Consumer Services to help parents find free meals for their children, who no longer have the option to attend school physically. For families facing financial hardship and food insecurity, the hotline is intended to alleviate their burden.
Florida residents may be notified of locations in their area offering free food for children by texting FLKIDSMEALS to 211-211 or calling 211 to speak to a local specialist.
Any individual or vendor interested in donating to The Salvation Army of Gainesville or the CMC’s Free Grocery Store can call or reach out on their respective Facebook pages. The CMC is also accepting dry food donations through a no-contact drop-off outside of the community center.
“We have not had a lot of non-perishable food donations to add to our food pantry, so we’ve had to actually go out and purchase some items to supplement what we have,” said Harwell. “We want to hold an event like this again, but we have to ask ourselves now if we can afford to do it.”
Correction: Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct delivery times of the Free Grocery Store and the correct spelling of Hank Harwell.
Priscilla Gonzalez helps to distribute supplies during The Salvation Army's food drive event Wednesday.
Left to right: Priscilla Gonzalez, Mayda Rios and Jean Graham wait for cars to arrive before distributubg supplies at the Salvation Army.
Supplies await distribution at the Gainesville chapter of the Salvation Army's food drive event Wednesday.