The United Food Bank of Plant City only continues to grow as it expands its offerings and prepares to not only help keep food on the shelves of local families, but also helps connect them to a variety of services.
The United Food Bank of Plant City is entering the busiest time of the year as children are home from school and in need of extra assistance. With all its new programs and growing clientele, there is much the community can do to help.
Mary Heysek, executive director of UFB, said the food bank has continued to see its numbers grow and is often fighting tooth and claw to make sure its shelves remain stocked.
Though UFB may just appear to be a food bank, the reality is it does so much more, acting as a connecting hub to a variety of other resources in the area.
“We’re the first-stop shop for food insecure people in this area,” Heysek said. “One where we can plug them into other resources. We’ve actually helped connect people to jobs, we offer a money-smart class, we start with helping with the food issue and, from there, we can address other areas.”
One of its major programs arose from a partnership with Hillsborough Community College. Heysek said there’s a common misconception that simply because someone can afford to attend a college class, they are financially well off and able to fully support themselves.
Often, she said, students have to drop classes, go without textbooks or even forgo supplies to stay enrolled and also pay their rent and living expenses. One thing that seems to be affecting students nationwide is hunger. If it comes down to having a class or keeping the pantry stocked, students are choosing their education.
Many go hungry trying to get their diploma, and while some universities have food banks on campus, those often come with a variety of complications that make it difficult to run successfully. The local HCC campus decided to reach out to the food bank to see if some of its students in need could be referred there via a voucher system to get some assistance.
The program currently serves approximately 60 students of all ages. Some are straight out of high school trying to make ends meet while they pursue their degree, while others are single parents who work all day, tend to their families and then go to school at night. The students who are referred to UFB receive a bag filled with food and toiletries to help get them through the week.
Younger students at local schools also are given a similar program option through UFB. During the school year, six schools partner with UFB for weekend bags. These students are selected by their social workers and receive a bag of food to help them get through the weekend without the free or reduced lunches provided by the schools. One high school, one middle school and four elementary schools take part in the program.
“We’ve heard all kinds of stories of how these bags help the children,” Heysek said. “There was one story of a teacher noticing their student’s book bag was very dirty, and when she asked why, they told her they would bury their book bag when they got their food so no one would take it from them. We hear these stories all the time. And really this is a program that’s not taken advantage of. Plant City High School has, what, 2000 students? We’re giving around 40 to 45 bags out to kids at that school. It’s truly only those who really need it.”
During the summer the help of school meals is gone and UFB picks up the slack, giving out approximately 600 kids bags every week to local families. Milk, bread, cereal, mac and cheese, PB&Js, fruit and a few other items comprise the bag, which values at around $22.
It can’t substitute every meal, but it definitely helps take the edge off so families don’t have to worry so much about finding ways to keep everyone fed.
Because of the massive turnaround, especially when you combine the kids’ bags with the normal traffic to UFB, the food bank is always in need of volunteers and donations.
Any shelf-stable food they can use for the bags or monetary donations can go a long way in helping local families. UFB is able to purchase items at a greatly discounted rate so a monetary donation can help buy massive quantities of whatever items they need.
UFB is also kicking off a new Purse Drive, which will provide handbags stuffed with toiletry items to moms and young women right before school begins.
From now until Aug. 2, UFB, 702 E. Alsobrook St., and RAOK Boutique, 2804 James L. Redman Parkway #103, will be collecting gently used purses as well as toiletry items and gift cards.
“It’s a really good program,” Ashlee Gillis, operations manager, said. “People have seen it posted and mentioned that it’s such a good idea. Everyone wants to go back and be like, ‘Oh I got a new purse,’ especially with school starting again for the college students. It gives a woman an extra little boost of confidence.”
The Purse Drive is just one of many ways UFB is helping community members get a head start on taking back their future. The organization is constantly looking for new ways to lend a helping hand in Plant City.
“That’s one thing about food insecurity, it kind of bleeds over to a lot of areas of people’s lives,” Matthew Buzza, chairman of the UFB board, said. “Their self worth, their confidence, that can all be affected. You’re maybe thinking about, ‘I don’t have enough to eat, do I have value as a human?’ Every time there’s an opportunity to love on them and touch someone and say, ‘You have value, you have potential,’ take it. That’s why the purse project is such a great concept. Just because right now you’re in need of food doesn’t mean you’re less of a human or anyone has the right to look down on you. Everybody needs some love and, by the grace of God, people who have plenty of food in their cabinets now may not tomorrow. You never know what tomorrow brings.”
If you would like to donate any items or funds to UFB, stop by during business hours or call 813-764-0625 for more information.