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A push to clear out pantries as people head North

With grocery prices up, a call to help feed others
Posted at 9:21 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 05:21:37-04

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Harry Chapin Food Bank, in Fort Myers, has long been the destination to sort out millions of pounds of food — dry, produce, dairy, frozen - and get all of it to the people who need it.

The need is very pronounced in 2022.

"The sad truth is that we have a lot of hungry people," said Richard LeBer, president/ceo of Harry Chapin Food Bank. "Mostly working families and seniors on fixed incomes for whom this is a very expensive place to live. At the same time, we have no shortage of food."

LeBer said the food bank is feeding "about a quarter of a million people" each month.

"Our numbers shot up during the pandemic to more than double what they were, pre-pandemic," said LeBer. "They're coming down some since then but still running about 30 percent more than during the pandemic."

As the calendar shifts from March into April, this also brings a focus on the tens of thousands of people who leave Southwest Florida to head north and go "back home". This brings about the potential of thousands of pantries full of uneaten food.

Lee County Solid Waste & Waste Prevention is, once again, launching its Donated Not Wasted program, for people to offer any unopened canned or dry goods. The dates for 2022 are April 4-18.

"In 2021, we had our highest amount collected with 9,312 pounds of food that was given back to the community," said Amanda Condamina, public utilities operations manager for Lee County Solid Waste & Waste Prevention.

In total, 21 drop-off locations are spread all throughout Lee County, with 15 of them at public libraries and also four locations at recreation centers (Estero, North Fort Myers, Veterans Park and Wa-Ke Hatchee).

As the government reports inflation numbers for groceries - and people pay higher prices for essentials - LeBer notes it may be a challenge for people who visit Southwest Florida on vacation to comprehend the need.

"It's easy for people who don't live here, full-time, to not see there's need," said LeBer. "You look around and see everything is beautiful and wealthy and well-cared for to not understand that people who waited your table at the restaurant or driving the bus or trimming the hedges may be struggling."

The Harry Chapin Food Bank also runs with a bevy of volunteers. We caught up with about eight of them, back on March 17, as their assignment was to pack eggplants.

"I come down here whenever I don't have school," said Natasha Jagadhish, a junior at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers. "Our school requires us to have community service."

LeBer said the food bank has about 4,000 volunteers on its roster each year, working about 80,000 volunteer hours, in total.

"The value of that is in excess of $2 million a year," said LeBer. "That's money we don't have to raise to go pay staff."