Seminole County, just north of Orlando, has the state’s eighth highest per capita income. Yet there are more than 1,200 homeless students and 30,000 students in low-income households, according to The Foundation for Seminole County Public Schools, a charitable organization connected to the district.
Recognizing the rise in need in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a nonprofit has increased its delivery of free meals to struggling families.
Running on grants and private donations, Hearts, Hands and Hope Inc. has been able to distribute more than 30,000 meals since April 7, said the group’s founder and president, Michelle Wilson.
She said the group is now helping to feed 10 times as many people as it was prior to the pandemic, with the high possibility of doubling that due to newly added distribution sites.
For four years, the group has provided meals to struggling families and children around Seminole County.
The nonprofit works as a community partner to the school district, focusing on areas the school district may be unable to reach.
Seminole County has three food desert census tracts. They are near the cities of Sanford, Altamonte Springs and Oviedo, according to the Seminole County 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment Report. Many of those areas overlap with census tracts where a high proportion of residents receive public food assistance.
According to the report, a food desert is an area where at least 500 people have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. So residents often turn to fast food and convenience stores.
Bags of nonperishable items are packed for children to bring home. They contain enough breakfast, lunch, or dinner items to feed a family of four to six people.
Before COVID-19, Hearts, Hands and Hope would prepare 100 to 200 bags feeding 600 to 1,200 people in Seminole County. These were passed out one day a week during long school breaks.
“Since COVID-19 began, we have kicked our programs into high gear to help feed children while they are out of school and not able to get to meal sites at schools,” said Wilson.
The food comes via Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, a warehouse that collects food from a variety of community sources at little to no cost. The food collected may otherwise rot, but instead is redistributed to community centers and after school programs using the food bank’s custom trailers.
According to the food bank’s director of philanthropy, Daniel Samuels, collection sources typically include grocery stores, manufacturers, United States Department of Agriculture commodities, farmers and food drives.
The nonprofits work to put together the hot meal boxes, also called “congregate boxes”, that are delivered to the community by Hearts, Hands and Hope.
Thursdays at 10 a.m., volunteers from another local nonprofit called Midway Coalition help Hearts, Hands and Hope distribute seven-day boxes to Midway Safe Harbor, a community learning center. From there, it reaches Seminole County members in need.
Emory Green Jr., president of Midway Coalition, said the Midway Safe Harbor is a building owned by Seminole County Public Schools and run by Quinnrecus Byrd, the site facilitator according to their website, as a location for after school programs. It is very well known in the community for being a safe place mostly for kids with free and reduced lunch.
Wilson said that families come early or line up at 9 a.m. to make sure they are able to get food. “Once we run out of food, that’s it,” said Wilson.
Wilson said that Hearts, Hands and Hope started “with kids helping kids.”
While her son was a student at Heathrow Elementary, Wilson, who was working with the PTA, heard from a teacher that the students at another school lacked pencils, notebooks and more.
Starting a program called Heathrow Hearts, Wilson and the PTA hosted toilet paper drives and other events in which students would help collect necessary items to help underprivileged students.
“No family should ever have to wonder where the next meal is coming from,” said Wilson. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
It’s personal for her as well. Years ago when her husband lost his job, Wilson’s family struggled. Friends and family provided meals.
Every day there are over 36,000 kids in Seminole County who struggle to find consistent nutritious meals.
Bonnye Deese is interim executive director of Rescue Outreach Mission, which helps to house and feed homeless individuals and families. She says Hearts, Hands and Hope was a major help.
“There is no way we could have gotten through COVID-19 without them,” said Deese “They reached out to us and helped us feed all of our children and families.”