Food: The crisis within the crisis

It’s a lesson in kindness and withholding judgment.

One day, it’s writing the checks to support an organization but, then, another day down the road, finding yourself in need of that organization’s help.

Thomas Mantz, chief executive officer of Feeding Tampa Bay, takes great pride in speaking of what the organization was able to accomplish in a short period of time when, arguably, his community needed him, and his team, the most.

In 2019, Mantz estimates that Feeding Tampa Bay served about 55 million meals. In 2021, it was closer to 95 million meals.

This is compounded by the fact that Feeding Tampa Bay is responsible for such a large area, 10 counties including Manatee up to Hernando, Hardee out to Pasco and everything in between.

“The present moment weighs heavily on all of us, but the history matters,” Mantz says. “We have seen, for a long time, food insecurity numbers be fairly significant across our community.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the food insecurity rate was around 15 percent in the Tampa Bay area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life.

“The pandemic was someone’s foot on the gas pedal,” he says, adding that Feeding Tampa Bay went, on average, from serving about 1 million meals a week to serving 2.5 million per week, during certain parts of the initial pandemic.

“We saw need escalate at a pace, in a range of the depth, we had never seen before because some people got up on March 18 and they didn’t have a job, but they weren’t prepared for that moment,” Mantz says. “They quickly burned up whatever resources they had. They went through their savings, they went through their credit cards and maxed them out. They did whatever they could to rob Peter to pay Paul. And then they showed up on our doorstep in record numbers.”

“The average family, in Florida, has about $600 in savings, right? So if you think about that for a moment, once those savings are liquidated in some way, shape or form, options become really limited,” Mantz says. “We saw someone who was preparing for a vacation two weeks before suddenly trying to figure out how to make sure they can pay the electric bill.”

With increased demand, the organization needed more trucks, more space and more manpower.

The solution was to reach out to furloughed workers, many in the restaurant industry, and say, “Come help us if you need a job. We need help, too.”

“I want to emphasize that we were only able to do that because our community steps in to help alongside us, whether it’s a donor or a volunteer,” Mantz says. “We had some very unique challenges, because food was another crisis point. Remember, people weren’t able to find it.”

“We saw a greater need, less food resources and less volunteers,” he says. “We had to figure that puzzle out.”

One of the proudest achievements he credits to his team is their innovation and ingenuity. “They tried to figure out solutions to some really difficult problems that none of us had even anticipated,” he adds.

Another unexpected consequence of the pandemic was making sure hungry kids, now missing a meal or two that school provides, each day, while the pandemic shut down schools.

“We had to think about our work differently,” Mantz says. “There were only a few feeding sites open for children early on.”

The solution, long term, was to partner with schools and find out where they could provide food that was easily accessible to those that needed it.

Schools were able to step back in to provide help, but for about four or five months, Feeding Tampa Bay provided a stop gap for the community in that respective area.

Meanwhile, Feeding Tampa Bay stepped in to help seniors get meals, using some of their restaurant partners to prepare meals to be delivered, ready to heat and eat.

“We’ve responded to hurricanes over the years and government shutdowns. We have a disaster plan in place, but COVID has been just markedly different in every other way. And, certainly, in size and scope and now, of course, in duration,” Mantz says.

The level of dependency, which Feeding Tampa Bay takes great pride in, is something that may not be well understood. The organization works closely with other nonprofits making sure they have food to help those that arrive on their doorsteps needing help.

“We’re the only organization in Tampa Bay that does what we do, and I don’t see that as a way of saying, ‘Hey, pat us on the back.’ I think it’s important to understand that every other food relief organization, some 450 of them across the 10 counties rely on us for food, some more than others, but virtually every single one comes to us or partners,” Mantz says. “Food relief touches more people in our community than all of the other charities combined.” 

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