It's one of the cruel circumstances of paradise. Just as the demand for food donations and services for low-income families rises, the availability is sharply down.
Summer months in southwest Florida produce the lowest donations to food pantries, mostly because a chunk of the population is gone. And because so many snowbirds vanish, service workers, for instance, suffer fewer working hours, causing greater hardship, which places more demand on pantries, said Maggi Feiner, executive director for FISH of Sanibel-Captiva, a nonprofit and United Way partner agency that delivers food, services and assistance to struggling families, seniors and others. FISH has undergone the cycle since 1982 when founding volunteers first drove seniors to any place they wished except the beach.
"There is definitely a seasonal drop off (in donations)," Feiner said. "It is one of our bigger challenges."
FISH food pantry runs low in summer
While Sanibel and Captiva have a smaller percentage of people struggling, there are still more than off-islanders would imagine. Many are seniors on fixed incomes, others are in restaurant and resort work. Fewer summer residents, fewer work hours, fewer dollars on the paychecks. It's that simple. FISH in 2013 reached some 285 families, nearly 1,700 people in Sanibel and Captiva, distributing some 76,000 pounds of food. The agency also supplies hard goods, provides computer usage, links to job providers and counselors, any number of programs to keep struggling families above water.
The agency also dispensed some $166,000 in emergency and medical funding, $10,000 in scholarships, 1,600 school backpacks, delivered some 2,500 meals to homebound residents, loaned nearly 500 wheelchairs and other medical equipment, assisted 58 seniors with hurricane supplies.
And when supplies run dangerously low, FISH volunteers and staff turn to local merchants and residents for help. Some supplies are the back half of buy one/get one sales, food-store donations, supplies and canned goods turned over from rental properties, cash, United Way and Harry Chapin donations, just about any nook and cranny where food and supplies can be harvested.
FISH volunteers also drive seniors and disabled residents to appointments, meet with new residents, place well-being calls to dozens of seniors, offer tax workshops, any service that could lend safety and comfort in times of need, Feiner said.
The agency even assists in emergencies. Dozens of seniors and disabled residents in Hurricane Charley were notified, moved or otherwise helped, for instance. All except one man, insisting on staying in his Sanibel home. Feiner said public safety officials after the storm discovered the man still there, sharing that he had worn a lifejacket throughout the ordeal.
"And he said he'd never do that again," Feiner said.
Sanibel and Captiva are not, of course, alone in efforts to secure food and cash for the most needy. Nearly every food pantry undergoes dry spells, said Miriam Pereira, development director for the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. The problems are compounded by children out of school, Florida produce largely out of season, and the snowbird effect, she said.
"We call it the triple threat in that regard," Pereira said. "It's a trickle down that we only start to recover from around October."
Harry Chapin reaches five counties, furnishing millions of pounds in goods and food. It services mobile food pantries and links to Goodwill and the Salvation Army. What's astonishing is that 70 percent of school kids in counties that Chapin serves are in free or reduced food programs, or about two-thirds of the public school students. What that means is a staggering amount of food and supplies to these families, which includes many in Sanibel and Captiva, Pereira said. In total, Chapin this year should distribute about 18.5 million pounds of food, or a million more pounds than last year. It distributed some 8 million pounds just four years ago. That compares to about 30 million pounds in a city like Houston. Harry Chapin touches about 30,000 people each month, she said.
The urgency is no less stressful in Sanibel and Captiva.
"Our job," Feiner said of FISH, "is to keep families afloat, keep them moving forward."