Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry serving more seniors

Published on: February 5, 2014

Tom Bullaro, far right, co-director of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry, says volunteers are the backbone of the pantry. Photo Kevin Brady

Tom Bullaro, far right, co-director of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry, says volunteers are the backbone of the pantry. Photo Kevin Brady

The number of families using Sun City Center’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry has increased 65 percent over the last year, and more seniors than ever are lining up every weekend to put food on the table.

“This time last year our average was about 110 families a week,”  said Tom Bullaro, co-director of the pantry with his wife Anita. “It’s up to 170 now.”

Most of his customers are from Wimauma, Bullaro said, adding “We have seen at least a 10 percent increase in the number of seniors coming to the pantry over the last year,”

Started in 2000 when Our Lady of Guadalupe volunteers handed out food on Saturday mornings, the pantry has grown into one of the county’s largest, helping as many as  200 Sun City Center, Wimauma and Balm families a week. That, said Bullaro, has grown into a four-day-a-week operation with 40 volunteers.

“When I started nine years ago we were serving 50 families a week,” he said. “Now we average about 170 a week, although we sometimes get 200.”

Each family is eligible to receive 50 to 60 pounds of food every two weeks at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “The typical box includes a lot of protein so we give them meat, rice, peanut butter and jelly, vegetables and potatoes, and we make sure everyone gets the same amount,” Bullaro said. “It’s not enough to last them for two weeks, but it will last them at least a week.  I know many also use other local pantries to supplement what they receive from us.”

Helping to keep the pantry’s shelves stocked are donations from the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center and the InterFaith Council of Sun City Center via the Nearly New Shop.Weekly collections at the church also help.

Project Hunger, a food and financial donation drive on the third weekend of the month at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, also helps keep the wolf from the pantry’s door. That project is run by the Knights of Columbus chapter 7282. “That amounts to more than $25,000 a year that we can buy food with,” Bullaro said.

Those donations provide Bullaro with about $1,000 a week to spend on food at Feeding America Tampa Bay, buying about 1,800 pounds of food.  Feeding America, a regional food bank, serves pantries throughout Tampa Bay.

While the church, which also runs a popular thrift shop, donates space for the food bank to operate, Bullaro, a retired homebuilder from Pennsylvania, ensures that the pantry pays its own way as much as possible.  He said, “We are currently looking for new freezers, and people have said ‘just get the money from the thrift shop,’ but we don’t receive any funding from the thrift shop. That goes to operate the church mission.”

A welcoming and professional attitude pervades the food pantry. Bullaro said he and his staff make sure of that.

“No one looks down on anyone who comes here for help,” he said. “God said help the poor, and that’s what we are doing. We don’t want the people to feel down and out.  We want them to feel they are just as good as anyone else. They need help and we are here to help.”

Working at the pantry has become almost full time for Bullaro, as it has for his staff.

“I am forever trying to get more food for the pantry,” he said. “It takes a lot of work but the volunteers are a very dedicated group of people.”

Bobbi Burnette is one of those volunteers. Burnette, at the pantry two years, said, “I think because of the economy and the increased cost of medicine we have seen an increase over the years, but it is something I enjoy doing.”

The simple thanks they receive from families, many with young children, are reward enough for Bullaro and his staff. “Just that ‘thank you’ is enough for us,” he said.

Where to donate

Canned food and nonperishable foodstuffs can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., through Feb. 28, at the JSA Medical Group Activity Center, 787 Cortaro Dr., Sun City Center, behind Burger King on State Road 674.

Other local food banks benefiting from the Caring Castle include the Lord’s Lighthouse, Good Samaritan Mission, Beth-El Mission and St. Anne Church.

Organizers plan to build a castle with donations, using canned goods and other nonperishable foodstuffs as bricks. The castle will be redesigned and rebuilt weekly as donations roll in.

The drive is already enjoying community support, turning in food even before the Feb. 1 start date.

“The feedback has been fabulous,” said Roseanne Korfant of Sun City Center’s JSA Medical Group, who pioneered the idea of a “Caring Castle” food drive at her previous job with the chamber of commerce in Cleveland, Ohio. “Everyone really thinks it’s a wonderful campaign.”