TAMPA, Fla. — In this Full Circle report, we take you behind the food lines and into the classrooms and non-profits helping lead the charge against child hunger.
According to statistics provided by Feeding Tampa Bay, one in four children is food insecure. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of kids in our area that go without food or lack proper nutrition.
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska interviewed a dozen people for this report; from kids to parents, volunteers to educators, and the leaders of local non-profits. We saw first-hand how they, not only feed hungry kids; but give them enrichment, mentorship, and the confidence to become successful adults.
The sad reality, at-risk kids in low-income areas weren’t getting enough meals for a long time before COVID-19 entered our lives. And now, it is only making things worse.
“I don’t see with the way our economy is going irregardless of COVID, it getting better,” Catherine Gilmore said. Gilmore is the Community Coordinator for Gibsonton Elementary.
She does everything from home visits to check on families to helping distribute food bags to students every Friday. Her focus is on attendance, enrichment, and making sure no family gets left behind.
“It’s our way of making sure that food goes home on the weekends for our families that are struggling,” Gilmore said. “A lot of our families already struggle to begin with and COVID didn’t make life any easier. So, we have 95% of our families at free and reduced lunch.”
There are countless numbers of people behind the scenes helping support Gilmore. Volunteers like Mike Daigle, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Brandon. Daigle retired from Mosaic and has volunteered to help distribute food at the school for nearly a decade. Mosaic sponsors the Smile Club making sure the school’s food pantry stays stocked.
"What worries you the most about where we are headed with this crisis?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked Daigle.
“That we will not find a way to get the economy back where people at the lowest rung of the economy can get their jobs back and provide for their families. More than anything I worry about that. The most important thing you can do anyone who gets free food say God bless you have a great day.”
Across the Bay in Pinellas County, there’s another program dedicated to making sure kids who live in Lealman have access to programs to stay out of trouble and succeed.
There is a reason why Pinellas PAL is located in Lealman, a neighborhood with the highest poverty and crime rate of the entire county.
“I got great kids here at PAL,” Neil Brickfield the Executive Director for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Police Athletic League said. “People hear police and think bad kids and it is quite the opposite. What I have is good kids, some of them living tough lives, all looking for a better life.”
Over the past year, Brickfield says they teamed up with Feeding Tampa Bay to fill another growing need in their community.
“The food element is huge,” Brickfield said. “Feeding Tampa Bay makes sure all of our kids get a hot dinner every night. Some kids eat one, some kids eat two, some kids don’t eat em and that’s a good sign too that means they are getting plenty at home.”
Brickfield says kids will suffer silently and are too proud, at times, to ask for help.
“Towards the end of the month you’ll notice that the kids seem to eat more of the food than they do at the beginning of the month,” Brickfield said. “So, you never know the kids don’t advertise the struggles you just have to look for the signs and they are there.”
Earning a child’s trust is a common theme at all of the locations we visited.
First-grade teacher Darcy Griffin said once students knew they could get help from her the flood gates opened.
“Even today the first thing that happened, the first kid that came in, he came right in and he almost got in the door and he said ‘Ms. Griffin I’m starving.' And I’m like, 'What? You need to go get breakfast’” Griffin said. “You can’t learn if you are hungry, we can’t work if we are hungry like it’s not gonna happen. So, I have to make sure that he has food in his stomach before I worry about teaching him.”
Griffin is on the frontlines of hunger. Every single day she says a different student asks for food.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Griffin said. “I sneak stuff in their backpacks. You can tell once you build that relationship with them you can just like know they are off today and say hey what’s going on.”
Gulfside Elementary is unique. Not all schools have a dedicated food pantry. They also have an area for students to get free dental care, medical check-ups, or talk to a therapist. And pre-COVID-19 they gave out shoes and clothes to students in need. For safety reasons, that is now on hold.
But, food is still the top priority. It gets the students engaged. But, that’s where the easy work starts and the hard part begins. School leaders still have to do everything else to help the families in need.
“Food is often that first line of defense,” Mary Brown the Director of Community Partnership at Gulfside Elementary said.
Paluska asked Brown what worries her the most when it comes to defeating child hunger.
“The fact that something like this isn’t in every school,” Brown said. “I would love to see a program like this in every school, where it is truly wraparound services that touch every piece of the student and their families; so the teachers can teach. What keeps me up at night is how do we keep this going? How do we continue to get even better at what we are doing and how do we replicate this in other places.”
Both Gibsonton and Gulfside Elementary are part of Feeding Tampa Bay’s Feeding Minds program. An initiative started in 2017 to help fill a major void in getting food home to kids.
“We go to schools because that’s where families already are,” Matt Spence, Feeding Tampa Bay, Chief Programs Officer said.
"Hunger exists all across our community, in every neighborhood, and every classroom. And no, people don’t like to admit they are hungry. Families don’t like to admit they struggle to put food on the table,” Spence said.
Since Feeding Minds started, they’ve provided 1.1 million meals through school pantries. More than 250,000 were hot after-school meals. Currently, they operate at 41 locations and have plans to add even more.
"If you could be in every school Feeding Tampa Bay could fill it with food? That wouldn’t be a problem?” Paluska asked Spence.
“If we have enough sponsors to make it available, you know the food exists,” Spence said. “Hunger is not a problem of scarcity, it is a problem of logistics. We can absolutely get the food to children who need it. That’s what keeps you up at night right and we know that the need is beyond what we can meet at this current day but we do feel really strongly that solving children’s hunger is possible.”