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It's not all about food: Explosive changes coming to Feeding Tampa Bay

Groundbreaking using explosives for the new Feeding Tampa Bay facility.
Posted at 5:47 AM, Feb 07, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — When Feeding Tampa Bay broke ground on their new warehouse, they didn't use shovels or cut a ribbon with oversized scissors; they used explosives.

Hundreds of people attending the dedication heard the bombs and watched dirt fly hundreds of feet into the air. The first person to push down on the detonator was Barbara Smith. A few years ago, Smith was down on her luck.

"Where would you be right now If you didn't have a place like feeding Tampa Bay where you can volunteer and help out?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked Smith.

"I would probably be on the street," Smith said.

In 2019, Smith began volunteering at Trinity Cafe 2. She said it changed her life.

"How is that possible that you're volunteering your time for free but doing better?" Paluska asked.

"Well, with a lot of friends, some people like to give, and some of them have given cash, some people have given gift cards, and that has helped," Smith said. "If it hadn't been for that and the friends. I don't know where I'd be. So it is that support. And there's a couple of people here that have been supportive."

The community support revolves around food and all of the other wraparound services Feeding Tampa Bay offers.

"You came in for a meal, but oh, by the way, you can sign up for a class you can see a person about financial literacy and health care. So now we're starting to say okay, can we start to navigate you through some of the underlying challenges in your household, so that ultimately you create capability to move out of our care," Thomas Mantz, President and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, said.

Mantz said they visited 30 different food banks across the country to find the best facility they could build for the community.

"You have to start with people," Mantz said. "So, our entire philosophy used to be how much food can we move? The challenge in the conversation we're having today is we know that the most important relationship in our world is the client that comes to seek our services and support in some way, shape, or form. So the conversation we started to have was, how do you build a building and an organizational structure that puts that first?"

He continued, "If you think about it, in this context, social services generally provide one large blanket over everybody equal in the same right. There's something good about that, but it ultimately misses a diverse community. So first, how do we start to build a facility that's open and available to the client? The second conversation is, how do you bring all your community partnerships into that world with you?"

Food banks across the country are following similar models.

"We know the world has changed. It's changed dramatically over the last three years," Julie Yurko, President, and CEO of Northern Illinois Food Bank, said. "And, so we are constantly pivoting based on information or workforce or supply chain on how can we make sure that we were providing this food system that is rich in dignity, convenience, rich in equity, and centered in enough nutritious food and the foods that our neighbors need and want."

Yurko said they serve 450,000 neighbors each month, a 50% increase year-over-year.

"We can provide enough food and every one of our 800 plus communities across Northern Illinois; we have a mapping tool that we use and allows us to track at the census tract level how many meals are needed, how many meals people are at risk of missing," Yurko said. "And, through our network of food pantries and soup kitchens in our programs, we are providing enough food and every one of those census tracts to meet that meal gap. And so our new strategic plan, which is centered on not only providing enough food equitably in every one of our communities, it's about reaching 90% of our neighbors who are getting help in every one of those communities."

Feeding America was recently named America's top charity by Forbes.

"We estimate 53 million people last year accessed the charitable food system in the United States," Katie Fitzgerald, President and COO of Feeding America, told Paluska. "It's really pretty alarming. And it doesn't mean everyone is getting that help every day from the charitable food system. But it does mean at some point many more people in our country are having to access that charitable assistance than any of us would like."

"What does it mean when you see that Feeding Tampa Bay is going to build this mega warehouse, have a commercial kitchen, and be able to increase so much more food than they could before?" Paluska asked.

"It's a huge deal. And we're so proud of the work of Feeding Tampa Bay; they are a jewel in their community, but they are also a jewel across the nation and a model for really effective services and strategies to address hunger in their community," Fitzgerald said. "Building a larger warehouse, building the commercial kitchen, those are things that are really important to, again, make sure that Feeding Tampa Bay can serve the community now. But what they're doing with that kitchen with so many other services, like their Fresh Force, is they're providing people with job training and skill development so that folks who might have had to have access to the charitable food system in the past won't have to do that anymore in the future. "

Feeding Tampa Bay was ranked 98 on the Forbes list, something Mantz said shows how much of a need there is across the community and the country. Currently, Mantz said they turn away 25-30% of food donations because of insufficient space or the capacity to process it. With the new warehouse, Mantz said they'll go from 95 million meals annually to 150 million.

"The first is that it will allow us to recover more products we can convert. So we get something like a produce product like carrots, potatoes, cabbage, they come on tractor-trailer loads, right? We're forced to push all that into the community immediately, say here, digest all of this now. Well, what happens if we now have a kitchen where we can repackage that flash freezer, prepare it as a meal, and take advantage of creating the longevity? So that's part number one we can't do today," Mantz said. "We could have built a much smaller building just to handle food. We didn't. We're building a building that can move people, right? Connect. And that's important to us because we believe somebody has to be willing to step up. Today starts our ability to say we've got the answers to some long-term problems that have challenged our community."