For those who face such a dire crisis, such as being suddenly without an income, there is hope. That hope comes from organizations such as Second Harvest, whose volunteers augment paid workers to get food to charities, social-service agencies and houses of worship for frontline distribution to people in need.
We asked Dan Samuels, director of philanthropy for Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, to put a face or two on the problems of hunger and poverty the pandemic has worsened in our community.
Samuels shared a couple of stories from his agency’s work over the past year.
“I can’t forget this one: In December, we partnered with WESH News for Share Your Christmas. We partnered because of the need in the community,” Samuels said. “It was slated to begin at 7 a.m. I arrived at 5:15 a.m. There was already a long line of cars. We had about 150 to 200 cars lined up before we began distributing food, and this grandfather, named Louis, was in the first car in line.
“He is a grandfather with two grandchildren living with him, and he had been taking people to and from the theme parks, until he lost his job when the parks shut down. He had arrived at 12:15 in the morning [for the 7 a.m. food giveaway], and he slept in his car. He wanted to make sure that he got food for his family,” Samuels continued. “The week before, he hadn’t been to get food and they had run out. That’s why that story stands out, because I’ve never been that desperate, just to get the necessities to live.”
Another story involved a single mother with three children.
“She was working two jobs to make ends meet, one during the day at the venues such as the basketball arena and the football stadium, where she worked in concessions. At night, she worked at a retail store, unloading trucks and stocking shelves,” Samuels said.
“She lost the sports jobs. When the store manager said they would be not getting as much merchandise to stock, she had her hours cut, and eventually lost that job,” he said. “In a matter of a week or two, she had lost both of her jobs and the ability to put food on the table for her kids.”
Samuels said the mother was able to get the food she needed for her family. Yet the plight of many remains, waiting to be alleviated.
“This pandemic is changing people’s lives,” he said.
While it has become more prominent during the coronavirus pandemic of the past 12 months, Second Harvest has often been the behind-the-scenes logistical partner for organizations whose people actually see, up close and personal, those who come in need.
While Second Harvest accepts cash donations from anyone who wants to support the agency’s mission, most of the food it distributes is donated through Second Harvest’s partnerships with grocers, restaurant chains and food processors.
“The main warehouse is in Orlando,” Samuels said. “Second Harvest works with 550 other nonprofit organizations in order to distribute food to families facing hunger.”
Second Harvest also has a warehouse in Daytona Beach, and from that facility comes food for churches and charities in West Volusia to give to those in need.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida receives, stocks and distributes food to nonprofit groups in six counties: Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Brevard, Lake and Volusia.
While Second Harvest may be one of the better known large-scale, or “wholesale,” food banks, Samuels noted it is allied with other organizations committed to helping the hungry.
“We’re all part of Feeding America. Feeding America is the umbrella for about 205 food banks across the country. Feeding Florida is part of Feeding America,” he said.
Samuels highlighted the human cost — not just the death toll, but the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“I don’t think we have recovered,” he said. “Even though our community has begun to reopen, I look back to 2008 and 2009. It took years for families to recover. When you lose your job, you start going through your checking account and savings, and then you look for help. There are people who have not recovered. I think we’re going to see the results of this pandemic for years.”
He added, “We are based on an economy that is tourist-driven, and when tourism goes down, the hotels lay off their housekeepers and others. We have one of the highest rates of underemployment. The downturn hit the entire community.”
Those hotel housekeepers and other support personnel, as well as those who work in other businesses in the hospitality sector, were not, for the most part, highly paid, but their loss of their livelihood exacerbated their plight of living paycheck to paycheck.
Samuels urged people on the down side of the economic spectrum to seek help.
“If you need food assistance, reach out,” he said. “We are here to help. We are here to put food on the table. I can’t imagine what some families are going through.”
Samuels said major companies, including supermarket chains such as Publix, restaurant chains, and food producers and processors, give to Second Harvest. Those donations go out, via charities, to people who would otherwise go without eating.
“Since the pandemic began last year, Second Harvest has distributed more than 96 million meals to those in need,” Samuels said. “In Central Florida, we are one. It may not seem that way, but we are one.”
“I think of Second Harvest as a tool to help our community, but it’s where the people — all of us — are coming together to make this possible,” he added. “We have the ability to access that food and get it out to the needy.”