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Food bank grows, as does list of the hungry

The Divine Providence Food Bank will slow down long enough next week to celebrate its 20th anniversary and dedicate a new larger warehouse.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 11, 2002


TAMPA -- As dawn breaks over Tampa, Quin Collins and Bob Steadham hustle outside a warehouse, loading boxes of tortilla shells, canned corn and frozen chicken dinners onto a pickup truck.

The cargo is destined for San Jose Mission, a help center in Dover that gave 50 tons of food last year to migrant farm workers and other low-income families.

"If we didn't have this place, we wouldn't be able to make it," said Collins, who directs the San Jose Mission pantry.

Every day, thousands of people in the Tampa Bay area say grace over food that volunteers like Collins and Steadham deliver from the Divine Providence Food Bank. On average, they total 40,000 to 50,000 people a week.

"Every day you move so fast moving food, you don't have time to think about it," said Sherryl Herbert, Divine Providence's executive director since 1989. "But every once in a while it hits you."

Next week, the food bank will slow down long enough to celebrate its 20th anniversary and dedicate a new warehouse. The agency recently moved from cramped quarters a block north of Kennedy Boulevard to rented digs at 5300 E Adamo Drive.

The warehouse is 41,000 square feet -- 70 percent bigger than the old building -- with 25-foot ceilings.

"We won't be able to outgrow this building," Herbert said.

Then again, the number of hungry families never stops growing.

Divine Providence serves 243 agencies in 10 counties.

Its food, donated by national corporations, grocery stores and old-fashioned food drives, winds up in homeless shelters, soup kitchens and private homes of the needy.

The job never ends.

The food bank moved 5-million pounds last year, more than three times what it did 20 years ago.

So far this year, the number is up by 780,000 pounds.

That doesn't surprise Herbert: While some fear shrinking mutual funds, others have more immediate needs.

"It's imperative that there are places like this," said Glenn Miller, senior pastor of Solid Rock Christian Recovery Center. The St. Petersburg facility serves hot meals to 200 people every day and boxes of food to 50 families every week.

On a recent morning, Miller and volunteer Eric Fridrichson stopped by the food bank to fill a van with toilet paper, aluminum foil and 500 pounds of coffee, along with a dozen boxes of catfish fillets.

"They're a real treat," Miller said.

As Miller talked, workers rattled dollies across the concrete, moving pallets stacked with boxes of Frosted Flakes, Stove Top Stuffing and Tuna Helper. Others culled damaged goods.

Food ends up here because of battered packaging, slow sales or looming expiration dates.

Herbert remembers getting hundreds of cases of Tropicana Twister when the drink first came out. No one was buying.

Another time, a truckload of potatoes arrived. They had been rejected by a chip factory for high sugar content, which could make the chips look burned.

The food bank costs $1.1nmillion a year to operate, Herbert said. Money comes from donations, grants and a handling fee of 18 cents per pound, paid by agencies that pick up food.

For everyone in the business, the holiday season is crunch time.

A food drive that Divine Providence leads with Kash n' Karry stores begins in the first week of November. And dozens of small companies will organize their own drives.

"It's already cranked up," said food bank employee Eric Singleton, busy sorting pasta from cereal and canned vegetables.

On a recent morning, representatives from 30 agencies showed up, looking for food.

Quin and Steadham, from San Jose Mission, picked through the tables to get items they thought Dover families would prefer.

Steadham snatched up two bottles of salsa.

"They'll like that," he said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

To learn more

-- The new warehouse will be dedicated Wednesday at 11:15 a.m., with tours of the building from 11:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-- The food bank is always in need of food, volunteers and financial support. To help, call 254-1190.

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