Joe Ruggiero sees the pallor of hunger every week in the faces of children.
Not on a TV commercial with children standing on the arid plains of a war-ravaged nation in Africa, but in his own backyard.
“We served about 10 families a month when I first came here,” said Ruggiero. “Now we serve 40 to 50 a month.” He has been donating his time and effort to Riverview’s Life Church Food Pantry for more than three years.
For Mike, who lost his job last year, the pantry is the difference between eating and going hungry. In better days, Mike donated to the pantry, he said. He asked that his last name not be used.
“Above and beyond the food, which was essential, the church provided me with hope,” said Mike. “The food was enough to carry me through a week or two, but the wonderful thing is that you can come here and depend on a family — which is what this church is.”
Some 37 percent of those served by bay area food banks are children under 18, according to Feeding America Tampa Bay. Six percent of local families using food banks include children age 5 and under.
Donna Witsell, manager of the Life Church’s Pantry, knows the families behind the statistics. The pantry, which has been around for more than a decade, serves 40 to 50 hungry families a month in Riverview, Tropical Acres, Summerfield, Balm and Wimauma, giving out 30-pound food baskets.
“We try to provide a variety of nutritious food to families, things that will last, so the baskets include a lot of pastas, cereals, lunch meat, soups and spaghetti sauces,” Witsell said. Food baskets might also include shampoo, razors and diapers. “There’s always a need for diapers and baby products,” Witsell said.
The pantry passes out food on the third Saturday of every month, but also after weekly church services.
Shelves holding case upon case of food is a common misconception about food banks, Witsell said. “People sometimes think we have all this food and it’s just a matter of dividing it up but it doesn’t always work,” she said. “Things actually got very slim at the Feeding America Food Bank just before the holidays, and that is a national organization.”
The Life Church Food Bank, like many local food pantries, buys much of its food from Feeding America. “It was taking months for us to get things like pasta and beans because there was such a huge need out there,” said Witsell.
She believes the need outweighs what the Life Church pantry can provide. “We have families who come in that have six to nine people in their household, and what we provide for them, 30 pounds of food, does not go very far.”
For more information on Life Church, call (813) 672-0810.
Where to donate
Canned food and nonperishable food can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Feb. 1-28, at the JSA Medical Group Activity Center, 787 Cortaro Dr., Sun City Center, behind Burger King on SR 674.
Other local food banks benefiting from the Caring Castle include The Lord’s Lighthouse, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Good Samaritan Mission, Beth-El Mission and St. Anne Church.
Organizers plan to build a castle with donations, using canned goods and other nonperishable food as bricks. The castle will be redesigned and rebuilt weekly as donations are received.