Though reopening efforts are going well across the country, food pantries and soup kitchens are still under pressure as families continue to struggle. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, one in five Floridian children were food insecure before the pandemic. In the wake of the challenges the last year has brought, it’s estimated that one in four children are food insecure—and it disproportionally affects Black and Latino communities. Behind these numbers are people staring at empty kitchen cabinets, skipping meals, trying to console hungry kids, and having to make heartbreaking decisions.
Though both the state and the county have a strong network of food assistance programs, many kids and families are unable to reach these facilities. With that in mind, an organization decided to start a new program—one that would drive meals to those most vulnerable and can’t reach food distribution sites.
Making a hard pivot
The Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger (TBNEH)—a tri-county leader in hunger relief, research, and program development—was developing Meals on Wheels for Kids Tampa Bay when the pandemic started. The program follows in the steps of the well-known Meals on Wheels, but instead of delivering meals to adults at home who are unable to purchase their own meals, they deliver them to kids in a similar situation. “We were going to start a pilot program in June 2020 with 20 kids for three months, gather the data and adjust as needed,” explains Caitlyn Peacock, Executive Director Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger.
But all their plans changed when schools closed in Pinellas County and over 50,000 kids suddenly faced food insecurity. “One week turned into two weeks. Then, on April 15th, they decided no more in-person school for the rest of the year. We still had hundreds of applications coming in from people who were terrified.” As of today, they’ve served 800,000 meals to over 10,000 kids and their families.
Lending a hand
To make this program work, Meals on Wheels for Kids relies on a strong team of volunteers. From the moment thousands of meals—that include produce, lean proteins, shelf stable groceries, as well as frozen meals—get prepared and assembled, to the many volunteers that deliver the meals to each kid’s home.
“Every week, we rely on hundreds of volunteers to help families spend time together, have access to healthy ingredients and have the opportunity to share a meal as a family,” Peacock explains.
But volunteer support isn’t the only thing keeping the program’s wheels rolling. They work alongside many organizations, both for-profit and non-profits.
“We’re not dollar motivated, we’re people motivated,” says Steve Cuculich, recognized Tampa Bay philanthropist and owner of Car Credit Tampa. And it’s not just words: Through Corazones de Car Credit they’ve recognized different charitable organizations or individuals in the Tampa Bay area for their work helping people who are new to the country. And when they heard about Meals on Wheels for Kids, they knew they had to help. In their commitment to helping support Spanish-speaking community members, they’ve joined forces to develop a communication strategy that will help Meals on Wheels for Kids reach those who are struggling the most.
Though the pandemic has raised awareness around food insecurity around the country, this, unfortunately, is an ongoing problem. “Food insecurity isn’t just a COVID problem. Kids are in school 180 days of the year, but there’s still 185 days where they’re not in school”, Peacock notes. “We’re looking to provide those 185 days of meals that these kids are at risk of not having and to also support the adults in the household.”
With this in mind, Meals on Wheels for Kids are trying to both expand the program and develop standards that will enable them to open affiliates across the country. With the upcoming opening of an affiliate in Atlanta, the program continues to gather momentum.
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