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  • The Second Harvest food bank doubled its distribution of food this year.
  • In a half-hour, First Presbyterian Church of DeLand loaded 800 boxes of food into cars that had begun lining up more than two hours before the recent giveaway began. When the food was exhausted, more people were still in line.
  • The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia helped 13,509 people keep their housing in 20-19. In 2020, that jumped to 14,417.
  • 64.46 percent of Volusia County public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
  • New Hope Baptist Church in Deltona went from having one food distribution a month to two, and noted an increase in families, instead of individuals, needing help.
  • Volusia County Community Services partnered with other agencies to distribute more than 1,500 tons of food in 2020.

Cars started lining up at 7:15 a.m. Feb. 20 outside of First Presbyerian Church of DeLand, for a food giveaway that wouldn’t start until 9:30 a.m., according to Pastor Michael Bodger.

By 10 a.m., all 800 boxes of food had been distributed, and people kept coming. 

For the giveaway two weeks later, on March 6, First Presbyterian ordered an additional 300 boxes of food to try and meet the demand of a hungry community. 

This is not an uncommon sight in West Volusia, especially not in 2021. How many of our neighbors are hungry — and why?

Needs of the many, not just the few

From increased anxiety, to job loss, to housing insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought hard times — and hunger — to West Volusia. 

Community organizations and churches are trying to respond.

First Presbyterian Church of DeLand is one church among many trying to combat the rising percentage of Volusia County residents in need of food. Pastor Michael Bodger said there is no way to tell exactly who is in need, which is why the church gives away food on what he called a “trust basis.”

“There’s an inherent need, anyway, but I think with the pandemic, it has increased dramatically,” Bodger said. “There’s a lot of unseen need, and all you can do is try to help them. If you come here with a vehicle, you get two boxes, which should feed a family of two for two weeks.”

Some pick up boxes for more than their own family. 

Brandy lined up at First Presbyterian early on a recent chilly Saturday. Brandy — who didn’t want to give her last name — works at a hospital and is also in nursing school. 

Her hours have been cut, her husband is out of work, and it isn’t always easy to provide for their family, which includes a young son. She was also picking up food for a close friend with a family of seven who was, at the time, suffering from COVID-19.

Halifax Urban Ministries, a partner with Volusia County, is another organization helping individuals.

“There’s a whole lot of folks that are right on the edge,” Halifax Urban Ministries Executive Director Buck James told The Beacon. “If anything happens, it can create some real strain for them to put good food on the table, and we all know how important that is.”

Dan Samuels, director of philanthropy for Second Harvest food bank, said when the family budget gets tight, food is often the first sacrifice.

“Food is one of the easiest things to cut back on,” Samuels said. “First they eliminate protein, then fresh food. Then you start skipping meals.”

A community problem

All across West Volusia, all over the country and all over the world, people are struggling with hunger. 

“It doesn’t have to be 365 days out of the year, but does a family have enough money to go buy a bag of groceries? The challenge is that there’s multiple things that contribute to that,” Halifax Urban Ministries’ James said. “So many people have relatively low-paying jobs, and it’s quite a challenge for two people making low wages to be able to pay the bills and afford good nutritious food.”

Capt. Camilo Rojas with the West Volusia Salvation Army has observed this, too.

Rojas recently moved to Volusia County from Florida’s Panhandle. The Salvation Army, he said, has seen an increase in need.

“I came here in June, but I was informed that once the pandemic started, weeks after everything started closing in Florida, they saw an increase in visits to the food pantry,” Rojas said.

GIVING A HAND UP — New Hope Human Services staff and volunteers pose for a photo in front of ready-to-distribute bags of food. From left are Sheila Dixon, Greg Holder, Linda Hamilton, Marion Diggs and, Betty Mcguire and Dot Bradley. New Hope Human Services distributes food to the community twice monthly ever since the start of the pandemic, when the organization added an additional event to its calendar.

Another organization that has seen a spike in need is New Hope Human Services, part of New Hope Baptist Church in Deltona. Executive Director Dot Bradley said people of all backgrounds and classes are suffering. 

“Because of the pandemic, we started doing monthly food drives on Saturdays,” Bradley said. This is in addition to food drives the organization has been running on the third Wednesday of every month.

“It was really overwhelming to see so many people coming from different economic brackets. It didn’t matter,” Bradley said. “In the last year, the demographic has changed. There are a lot of younger families.”

Bradley, along with her husband, New Hope Baptist Church Pastor William Bradley, have operated the Hands of Hope food pantry for 20 years. While the problem has been worse over the past year, Dot Bradley said, she has witnessed the crisis of community hunger for a long time.

“In 2020, there was a bigger trend of individuals coming, those who you don’t normally see. I would say earlier it may have been those who were elderly who would come at first, but that changed significantly,” she said. “Families, those who are homeless, those who were placed on furlough, who were laid off completely; we’ve seen those who are still of working age, but because of medical problems, and bills that most of their income went to, they still needed food. It was everybody from all brackets of the economy. It didn’t matter where they had been.”

PACKING UP — New Hope Human Services volunteer Marion Diggs packs up bags for an upcoming food distribution. Diggs is “one of many” volunteers, Executive Director Dot Bradley told The Beacon. New Hope distributes nonperishable food, produce and meat to individuals in need — not only people from the surrounding Deltona community, but from all over Volusia County.

Mental health

“We’re so grateful to the churches for doing these food drives,” said Jennifer Nadelkov, CEO of The House Next Door. “When the pandemic first hit, it was crucial. You have a lot of students who were relying on school for food. That was intense for a lot of families.”

The House Next Door is a Volusia County nonprofit based in DeLand that specializes in family services that include mental-health counseling. Nadelkov told The Beacon that the challenges of this past year have taken a toll on everyone.

“We’re seeing a lot of increased anxiety with kids,” she said. “When you look at the hierarchy of needs, housing, food and shelter are the top needs.”

HAPPY TO VOLUNTEER — Among volunteers at one First Presbyterian Church of DeLand food distribution are Miranda, right, and Zoe. The 14-year-old girls said it was good to give back to the community. Miranda, especially, said it was “good to be out.” After Miranda’s fight with lymphoma, her cancer is in remission, she said.

There are also more individuals experiencing homelessness. In 2019, The Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals fight against homelessness and food insecurity, assisted 13,509 people to prevent homelessness. In 2020, that number was up to 14,417.

“I believe whether or not people are willing to admit it, that people have been woken up,” Director of Operations Waylan Niece said. “A lot of people are admitting ‘Oh, I’m not as well off as I thought I was.’”

The number of meals distributed by The Neighborhood Center through their food pantry also rose by nearly 60,000 in 2020. In 2019, the pantry distributed 326,520 meals. In 2020, that number rose to 382,599.

For many who have experienced food insecurity, Niece said, things can come down to a difficult and life-threatening calculus: “Do I pay my rent or do I pay for food?”

Family of four with two children.

Wage-earners: Two, one earning $10 and hour, and one earning $15 an hour, both working full-time.

Monthly take-home pay: $3,570 

Housing: $939
Utilities: $150 

Cellphones: $130

Internet: $50 
Transportation: $843

Child care: $1,162

Food: $874

Health care: $803

Monthly expenses, without clothing, entertainment, recreation, school fees and supplies, etc.: $4,951, or about $1,400 more than take-home pay.

Notes:

  • To apply for assistance in Volusia County, a family of four must have a gross income at or below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, or $39,300.
  • According to West Volusia Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Magda Hiller, Volusia County’s average cost of living for a family of four is $47,617.
  • The ALICE report states, “The federal poverty level for a four-person family was $25,100 in 2018, while the Household Survival Budget for two adults, an infant and a 4-year-old was $69,516.
  • According to the 2020 Florida ALICE report, monthly expenses for a family of four in 2018 averaged $5,793.
  • The living-wage calculator developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adjust for Florida, suggests that for a family of four with two adults, each adult needs to make an income of $82,939 before income taxes to make a living wage.

 

‘There’s always been a need’

Celeste Stills was lined up at First Presbyterian on March 6. Stills is disabled, and said she lost her job after she caught COVID-19 some months back. 

“It’s just hard,” she said. “It’s a struggle; everyone has struggles.” 

Stills and her husband, who she said is a veteran, are taking it “day-by-day.”

Orange City resident Richard Oliver was also waiting for the event to begin. 

“All my life I’ve been poor,” Oliver told The Beacon. 

While he used to do physical labor to support himself, he said he has three pinched nerves, and the pain in his legs is too great. 

As he waited for the food distribution to start, DeLandite Roosevelt Demps said he wished the COVID-19 pandemic was over. 

“How long is this thing gonna last?” he asked. 

Demps retired in 1998, but has dealt with health problems that have kept him running from doctor to doctor for years. 

Dot Bradley believes it will take more than just ending the COVID-19 pandemic to solve community hunger.

“This is not going to go away just because they’re helping people with vaccines. I think we’re going to see this trend last until next year as far as people getting themselves back together,” she said. “There’s always been a need. The need is greater now.”

Bradley said she was happy to hear that a COVID-19 relief bill had been passed by Congress, because people will use that money to pay for food and rent. 

But, Bradley stressed, as long as hunger exists, it is critical not to judge individuals, but to reach out and give a hand up if you can.

Second Harvest’s Samuels said providing food is important, but only part of the equation.

“We can just say, ‘Here’s enough money to feed everyone.’ That doesn’t fix the problem. … We need to look at the root cause.”

A real fix, he said, is more than one agency can do.

“It’s going to take a combination of efforts, between food banks and government,” he said.

  • Volusia County Schools
    As of March 1, 2021, students whose family incomes qualify them for free or reduced lunch
    Free: 32,978 (about 2,000 more than in December 2020).
    Reduced-price: 2,960 (about 500 more than in December 2020).
    Percentage of students districtwide on free or reduced-price lunch: 64.46 percent (61.75 percent in December 2020).
    As of March 15, 2021, there were 2,294 homeless students in the Volusia County Schools system.
  • Volusia-Flager County Coalition for the Homeless
    Homeless counts in Volusia
    2020 — 831
    2019 — 745
    2018 — 621
    http://www.vfcch.org/point-in-time-count.html
  • The Neighborhood Center
    For the year 2020
    Households served — 14,417
    Meals distributed — 382.599, equaling $1,487,855
  • Florida Department of Economic Opportunity 
    March 1, 2020-Feb. 27, 2021
    72,351 unemployment claims, or 28.4 percent of the total workforce in Volusia County.
  • Volusia County Community Services
    For the year 2020
    Partnered with Halifax Urban Ministries, the United Way, The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia and the Jewish Federation to distribute more than 1,500 tons of food.
    Partnered with Food Brings Hope to distribute 420 tons of food.
    The county used nearly $2.5 million of its CARES Act funds to provide the food.

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