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Feeding Those in Need

Food banks across the country have spent the past two years noting that when demand is high for their services, times are tough for their communities. 

But those tough times can also showcase the best of humanity when people come together for a good cause, which is exactly what the team at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida has witnessed throughout the pandemic. 

“What we saw during 2020 and 2021 was a doubling of need in our community,” says Greg Higgerson, Second Harvest’s chief development officer, who explains that the region they serve was especially vulnerable since hospitality industry employees account for one of the demographics hardest hit by COVID’s ripple-effect impact. “But thanks to a number of factors—not the least of which is a groundswell of community support—we were able to double our output for well over a year.”

Since 1981, Second Harvest has been combating food insecurity across Central Florida. As a member of Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief charitable organization, the local nonprofit serves six counties by securing and distributing fresh food, grocery staples and more. 

As people in sudden monetary crisis tend to allocate any savings they have to more immediate costs, battling hunger is one way the Second Harvest team can make sure their neighbors in need don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from. “When people face a big financial challenge, one of the very first things that people need is food because everything else in their budget is spoken for in terms of expenses,” Higgerson explains. “Usually they make other choices before that: They’ll put a roof over their heads and make sure the kids have clothes to wear to school first.”

Before the pandemic, Second Harvest was distributing 150,000 meals a day; at the height of it, distribution skyrocketed to 300,000 meals a day. Demand has since relented to a degree but Higgerson anticipates that even when COVID is a thing of the past, its effects will linger for years, much like what Second Harvest witnessed in the wake of the Great Recession.

“Now that we see a little bit of light at the end of the COVID tunnel, we have kind of plateaued a bit and are doing 250,000 meals a day currently, which is still 100,000 meals a day more than we were doing pre-pandemic,” Higgerson notes. “In many cases, recovering from the recession or the pandemic depends on where you started out to begin with, in terms of your economic situation. Those on the lowest end, many of them never recovered after the recession. So by no means has this problem gone away for low-income families, and we expect that to be the case for at least a few years to come. These events really do have a profound impact on people’s futures.”

Being able to still keep up with that increased demand is due in large part to a passionate team, dedicated volunteers and more than 550 local partner feeding programs all helping to make sure Second Harvest reaches residents in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties. 

But a global health crisis forced the food bank to get a little creative with how it rose to meet a necessary volunteer limit amidst a meteoric rise in community need. 

“Basically, we had to worry about two things: We had to worry about getting the food out, but we also had to worry about keeping the operation safe,” he says, noting that closures have been a rampant concern, with 90 of Second Harvest’s partners shut down at one point. “It wouldn’t do anyone any good if we were cranking out all this food and then had to close because all of our staff got COVID all at once.”

Any staff not involved with Second Harvest’s distribution operations went remote, while social distancing, temperature checks and an on-site skeleton crew all helped to reduce exposure potential. But despite COVID fears and increased safety procedures, volunteers have been flocking to Second Harvest all throughout the pandemic.

Mindy Ortiz, director of volunteer services, notes that Second Harvest’s volunteers range from the board members on the leadership team who determine the direction of the nonprofit to the “thousands and thousands” of volunteers who help with the food bank’s garden, culinary teaching kitchen, mobile food drops, warehouse and more. 

“The warehouse volunteers help sort donations, they check expiration dates, they help us bag potatoes, they help us produce meals in our production kitchen,” she says. “There are so many things that have to happen in order for us to be able to distribute food.”

With its wide reach and 40 years of community recognition on its side, Second Harvest has the local support and internal bandwidth to lend some of its volunteers to other organizations’ efforts, too, since those who give their time to the food bank tend to find more helping hands. 

“Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been helping some of our partners who needed volunteers, since we have that network to tap into,” Ortiz says. “Our volunteers are our advocates: They come in here, they see the need, they help us get the food out, but they’re also out there sharing our mission. We have so many volunteers who bring in other volunteers to help out, and they help spread the word that there’s a need for them.” 

By working with its partners and other nonprofits even tangentially in the food-bank space, Second Harvest is able to use its strengths to help other organizations address issues with overlapping missions, allowing them to tackle bigger societal problems from multiple angles.

“A few of our partner agencies have feeding others as their only mission, but the vast majority of them have it as part of their larger mission,” says Higgerson. With Second Harvest providing food to churches, shelters and other outreach services, those programs can then “concentrate on all the other things they do for people and help them in a deeper way.” 

It does take a united effort to tackle problems as systemically persistent as hunger and food insecurity, especially when that need is more pressing than ever. One of the biggest successes Second Harvest saw during the pandemic was harnessing the reach of its mobile food banks, which Higgerson describes as an elegant solution for delivering the most food while presenting the least risk of exposure. Before COVID, mobile food drops were a coordinated effort with partner agencies where a dedicated truck would distribute food at dedicated drive-thru pickup sites. 

Those mobile distribution efforts “really went on steroids once the pandemic began,” Higgerson reports, quadrupling their number of pre-COVID weekly food drops.

“People didn’t want to get out of their cars, they didn’t want to come inside a building,” he says. “Just to keep distancing and keep everyone safe, that really became the model across all of our partners, and to some degree, it’s still there. … We saw 500, 600 cars full of families at many of these events, and that became the norm for well over a year.”  

Higgerson does note that being so visible in the community helps get the word out that Second Harvest is here to help, and there is no need to either be embarrassed by or justify asking for assistance from entities that exist to help others. 

“During the pandemic, as many as 40% of the people who needed help with food needed it for the first time in their lives,” he points out. “If you don’t have enough money at this moment in time to feed yourself and your family, then you need some help. And we’re happy to do that, because that’s what our mission is all about.” 

And it’s all made possible by the people powering Second Harvest’s mission and their mindset to give. 

“This was a time when I think a lot of people, even those who feel fairly secure and insulated, paused and allowed their minds to go down that path of, ‘Gosh, what if this happened to me, what would I need, what would I hope people would be doing to help me,’” Higgerson adds. “That can be a very powerful experience for people—and, hopefully, it’s a lasting one. We don’t want to lose the community’s attention because there are still a lot of unknowns to prepare for.” 

“We take a lot of pride in our volunteer experience,” Ortiz adds. “If someone’s here for a three-hour shift, we’ll tell them how much food we were able to sort and how many meals that equates to. They might not necessarily get to see the person they fed, but we want to give them real-life examples of how they helped with our mission.”