Thousands go hungry in DeSoto County


Mike Cherry of All Faiths Food Bank delivers pallets of food to a group of 150 people who waited an hour for the truck to arrive on Nov. 16, 2011. About 300 people receive food at the twice-monthly giveaways at the city-owned Smith-Brown Recreation Center. (Nov. 16, 2011; Herald-Tribune staff photo by Robert Eckhart)

STAFF PHOTO / ROBERT ECKHART

By
Published: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 2:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 2:21 p.m.

DESOTO COUNTY – Hungry people start arriving at the Arcadia Center for the Needy about 6 a.m., carrying off bologna sandwiches and crackers and bottled water.

James Beckett, wearing a white apron and ball cap like always, greets them at the door and jots down their first names as he hands over the food in paper bags.

Beckett will be the first to admit the sandwiches have gotten thinner as the Great Recession lingers. On a recent Wednesday, it was one slice of lunch meat and half a slice of American cheese as he tried to stretch the center’s diminishing supply.

So the clients started asking for two sandwiches instead of one, Beckett says with a laugh, and the supply still doesn’t last.

“We can’t keep food in this place,” he says. “It gets hard sometimes, man. We just need a push, because there’s a lot of people.”

The recession hit Florida’s Gulf Coast hard, but it hit DeSoto County harder. With a rural economy based on agriculture and construction, DeSoto has nowhere near the money or the social service safety net of its coastal neighbors. The need for food, the most basic requirement, has gone through the roof.

The number of households on food stamps has tripled — now one in three in DeSoto County receives them. At the same time, climbing food and gas prices mean those assistance dollars don’t stretch as far.

“People who were in good shape a couple of years ago are in bad shape now,” says Marty Dow, a 50-year DeSoto County resident. “It’s been a rapid decline.”

Dow has served on the boards of three nonprofits that are taking lead roles in providing food to the poor — all of them doing it on a shoestring budget, with volunteer help and tons of donated staples.

Crowds of 300 or more show up at weekly food giveaways. Free hot lunches on weekdays are drawing crowds of up to 225.

The DeSoto County Homeless Coalition handed out a year’s worth of rental assistance, $88,000, in just four months.

Across town at the Catholic Charities office, Sister Ann DeNicolo and the staff gave poor people $120,000 in seven months, the bulk of it for rental assistance or utility bills.

Most of those people have just enough income to cover their bills, DeNicolo says, but one major repair or an unforeseen expense can set them back for months.

Catholic Charities began receiving and distributing money from the Season of Sharing campaign this year. DeNicolo says if it were not for those funds, she would be out “begging” for money from other nonprofits.

Working together, the churches and social service groups offer free hot lunches on weekdays at two different sites — both of the lunch programs were started by residents who felt a calling to do something to help the poor people they saw around town.

“You cannot live in DeSoto County and not be hit in the face by the high level of need,” says Susan Laubhan, who organized two community meals a week at her church, Trinity United Methodist.

“Maybe a $5 lunch a couple of times a week is going to give them enough money to go pick up their heart medicine, or something like that. Or help them pay their electric bill.”

State layoffs add to woes

The Census Bureau estimates that the poverty rate in DeSoto County is 25.6 percent, sixth-highest among Florida’s 67 counties. That is double the poverty rate of neighboring Sarasota County.

A mostly vacant strip mall on U.S. 17 near downtown Arcadia used to be full of businesses that catered to a surging population of Hispanics, many of them Mexicans who worked in the orange groves or building homes — 42 percent of DeSoto County’s job market is in agriculture and construction.

The county’s unemployment stands at 10.3 percent, but community leaders suspect the problem of joblessness is bigger than that

Hundreds of migrant workers stayed late into the summer this year without work, they say. The citrus harvests were over but floods in the South and Midwest slowed the annual migration of the work force. The migrant workers often do not show up in government statistics.

Then in August the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice closed down a DeSoto County facility that had a staff of 400 — significantly more than the county’s biggest private employer, Walmart, which has a payroll of 300.

The few nonprofits that provide a safety net for the poor in DeSoto County were swamped in their leanest time of the year.

Dow, who moved to DeSoto County in 1960, worked in a now-defunct factory that made power transformers. He volunteers with the Chamber of Commerce to attract new business, but says DeSoto has had no luck on that front.

“The sad part is, with Desoto County being a rural area, and an agriculture county, we usually fall to the bottom when it comes to any kind of financial support or big business coming here,” Dow said. “There’s just not enough recycled money here to keep a business going.”

The same conditions that make it hard to start a business make fundraising difficult for nonprofit groups.

At the DeSoto County Homeless Coalition, board president Valerie Gilchrist has struggled for five years to keep the agency afloat, donating her time.

Meanwhile, she keeps seeing more need, and the homeless coalition has recently added after-school programs and camps for children during school breaks.

In July, it added twice-a-month distributions of free food and other services to a community that seems to get needier every year.

The number of DeSoto County households receiving food stamps has marched steadily up since December 2006 — from 1,248 to 3,665.

Last week, more than 150 people lined up outside the city-owned Smith-Brown Recreation Center to fill bags with canned ravioli, bread and soup.

The truck was an hour late, so volunteers distributed chairs and the assembled crowd staked out spots in the shade to wait it out.

“They ain’t going nowhere,” said volunteer John Godwin. “Ain’t no jobs, and people are suffering.”

The food is provided by All Faiths Food Bank, which started out delivering about 250 pounds a month in July.

Now more than 300 people show up, and All Faiths delivers a ton of food each month.

The lines got so big that elderly people were suffering from heat exhaustion while they waited — a problem the volunteers solved by letting the elderly and disabled in first, so they could take their groceries before it got too hot.

Gilchrist worked as an administrative assistant at the state-run G. Pierce Wood mental hospital, which was closed in 2002. Now she is trying to convince state officials to do something to help people who used to work at the state juvenile facility that just closed down.

Another 400 lost jobs is enough to shut down a church, or another business, she says: “Over time, the resources are dwindling because the economy hasn’t really turned up.”

The turkey brigade

Demand for food from All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota has increased 40 percent since last year. In 2011, the agency is on target to deliver 6 million pounds of food, the most ever. The food bank provides staples to more than 160 partner agencies in Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

In October, the food bank reported its stock of donated canned food was totally depleted for the second time since the economic downturn started in late 2006. The food bank’s stores have rebounded somewhat in November, as holiday food drives began.

The warehouse is about half-full now with pallets of juice and canned beans and soup. The Thanksgiving turkeys that go out to social service agencies in DeSoto and Sarasota counties were shipped on Friday — 6,000 birds, up from 5,000 last year.

The food bank gets a deep discount from Walmart on the turkeys, then makes them available to churches, schools and social service agencies.

“I don’t want them in my freezer,” said James Swinford, the food bank’s director of operations. “We want them on tables.”

The biggest single order came from DeNicolo, the Catholic Charities nun in DeSoto, who received 710 turkeys and distributed them to families and other agencies, including the folks at Trinity United Methodist Church, which hosted a Thanksgiving feast on Wednesday.

“We do well considering the hardships that we have here,” Dow says. “We’re a very closeknit county.”

But with no rebound in sight for DeSoto’s economy, Dow warns that those who have been providing for others are themselves being stretched thinner as the months pass. The holidays provide a boost every year for nonprofits, but by March many of them will be scraping by again.

“We’re here and we need help,” Dow says. “Even a couple of dollars in a jar is a help.”

Thousands go hungry in DeSoto CountyBy ROBERT ECKHART

Two women stand at the door while they wait for hand-me-down shoes at the Arcadia Center for the Needy on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011. The center’s…

HeraldTribune.comNovember 23, 2011 2:21 PM

DESOTO COUNTY- Hungry people start arriving at the Arcadia Center for the Needy about 6 a.m., carrying off bologna sandwiches and crackers and bottled water.James Beckett, wearing a white apron and ball cap like always, greets them at the door and jots down their first names as he hands over the food in paper bags.Beckett will be the first to admit the sandwiches have gotten thinner as the Great Recession lingers. On a recent Wednesday, it was one slice of lunch meat and half a slice of American cheese as he tried to stretch the center’s diminishing supply.So the clients started asking for two sandwiches instead of one, Beckett says with a laugh, and the supply still doesn’t last.”We can’t keep food in this place,” he says. “It gets hard sometimes, man. We just need a push, because there’s a lot of people.”The recession hit Florida’s Gulf Coast hard, but it hit DeSoto County harder. With a rural economy based on agriculture and construction, DeSoto has nowhere near the money or the social service safety net of its coastal neighbors. The need for food, the most basic requirement, has gone through the roof.The number of households on food stamps has tripled — now one in three in DeSoto County receives them. At the same time, climbing food and gas prices mean those assistance dollars don’t stretch as far.”People who were in good shape a couple of years ago are in bad shape now,” says Marty Dow, a 50-year DeSoto County resident. “It’s been a rapid decline.”Dow has served on the boards of three nonprofits that are taking lead roles in providing food to the poor — all of them doing it on a shoestring budget, with volunteer help and tons of donated staples.Crowds of 300 or more show up at weekly food giveaways. Free hot lunches on weekdays are drawing crowds of up to 225.The DeSoto County Homeless Coalition handed out a year’s worth of rental assistance, $88,000, in just four months.Across town at the Catholic Charities office, Sister Ann DeNicolo and the staff gave poor people $120,000 in seven months, the bulk of it for rental assistance or utility bills.Most of those people have just enough income to cover their bills, DeNicolo says, but one major repair or an unforeseen expense can set them back for months.Catholic Charities began receiving and distributing money from the Season of Sharing campaign this year. DeNicolo says if it were not for those funds, she would be out “begging” for money from other nonprofits.Working together, the churches and social service groups offer free hot lunches on weekdays at two different sites — both of the lunch programs were started by residents who felt a calling to do something to help the poor people they saw around town.<“You cannot live in DeSoto County and not be hit in the face by the high level of need,” says Susan Laubhan, who organized two community meals a week at her church, Trinity United Methodist.”Maybe a $5 lunch a couple of times a week is going to give them enough money to go pick up their heart medicine, or something like that. Or help them pay their electric bill.”State layoffs add to woesThe Census Bureau estimates that the poverty rate in DeSoto County is 25.6 percent, sixth-highest among Florida’s 67 counties. That is double the poverty rate of neighboring Sarasota County.A mostly vacant strip mall on U.S. 17 near downtown Arcadia used to be full of businesses that catered to a surging population of Hispanics, many of them Mexicans who worked in the orange groves or building homes — 42 percent of DeSoto County’s job market is in agriculture and construction.The county’s unemployment stands at 10.3 percent, but community leaders suspect the problem of joblessness is bigger than that Hundreds of migrant workers stayed late into the summer this year without work, they say. The citrus harvests were over but floods in the South and Midwest slowed the annual migration of the work force. The migrant workers often do not show up in government statistics.Then in August the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice closed down a DeSoto County facility that had a staff of 400 — significantly more than the county’s biggest private employer, Walmart, which has a payroll of 300.The few nonprofits that provide a safety net for the poor in DeSoto County were swamped in their leanest time of the year.Dow, who moved to DeSoto County in 1960, worked in a now-defunct factory that made power transformers. He volunteers with the Chamber of Commerce to attract new business, but says DeSoto has had no luck on that front.”The sad part is, with Desoto County being a rural area, and an agriculture county, we usually fall to the bottom when it comes to any kind of financial support or big business coming here,” Dow said. “There’s just not enough recycled money here to keep a business going.”The same conditions that make it hard to start a business make fundraising difficult for nonprofit groups.At the DeSoto County Homeless Coalition, board president Valerie Gilchrist has struggled for five years to keep the agency afloat, donating her time.Meanwhile, she keeps seeing more need, and the homeless coalition has recently added after-school programs and camps for children during school breaks.In July, it added twice-a-month distributions of free food and other services to a community that seems to get needier every year.The number of DeSoto County households receiving food stamps has marched steadily up since December 2006 — from 1,248 to 3,665.Last week, more than 150 people lined up outside the city-owned Smith-Brown Recreation Center to fill bags with canned ravioli, bread and soup.The truck was an hour late, so volunteers distributed chairs and the assembled crowd staked out spots in the shade to wait it out.”They ain’t going nowhere,” said volunteer John Godwin. “Ain’t no jobs, and people are suffering.”The food is provided by All Faiths Food Bank, which started out delivering about 250 pounds a month in July.Now more than 300 people show up, and All Faiths delivers a ton of food each month.The lines got so big that elderly people were suffering from heat exhaustion while they waited — a problem the volunteers solved by letting the elderly and disabled in first, so they could take their groceries before it got too hot.Gilchrist worked as an administrative assistant at the state-run G. Pierce Wood mental hospital, which was closed in 2002. Now she is trying to convince state officials to do something to help people who used to work at the state juvenile facility that just closed down.Another 400 lost jobs is enough to shut down a church, or another business, she says: “Over time, the resources are dwindling because the economy hasn’t really turned up.”The turkey brigade.Demand for food from All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota has increased 40 percent since last year. In 2011, the agency is on target to deliver 6 million pounds of food, the most ever. The food bank provides staples to more than 160 partner agencies in Sarasota and DeSoto counties.In October, the food bank reported its stock of donated canned food was totally depleted for the second time since the economic downturn started in late 2006. The food bank’s stores have rebounded somewhat in November, as holiday food drives began.The warehouse is about half-full now with pallets of juice and canned beans and soup. The Thanksgiving turkeys that go out to social service agencies in DeSoto and Sarasota counties were shipped on Friday — 6,000 birds, up from 5,000 last year.The food bank gets a deep discount from Walmart on the turkeys, then makes them available to churches, schools and social service agencies.”I don’t want them in my freezer,” said James Swinford, the food bank’s director of operations. “We want them on tables.”The biggest single order came from DeNicolo, the Catholic Charities nun in DeSoto, who received 710 turkeys and distributed them to families and other agencies, including the folks at Trinity United Methodist Church, which hosted a Thanksgiving feast on Wednesday.”We do well considering the hardships that we have here,” Dow says. “We’re a very closeknit county.”But with no rebound in sight for DeSoto’s economy, Dow warns that those who have been providing for others are themselves being stretched thinner as the months pass. The holidays provide a boost every year for nonprofits, but by March many of them will be scraping by again.”We’re here and we need help,” Dow says. “Even a couple of dollars in a jar is a help.”
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