Feeding Tampa Bay volunteers carry boxes of food into waiting cars during a mega-pantry drive-through operation at the State College of Florida on May 26 in Bradenton, Fla. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Tampa Bay Times)

Feeding Tampa Bay opened the new drive-through food bank — dubbed a mega-pantry — in Manatee County

BRADENTON, Fla. — An hour before the food bank opened on Tuesday, the line of more than 400 cars snaked around the community college campus.

Among the drivers was Jessica Napoli, who was still in line when one of her six children called to ask if she could bring them a snack.

There were no snacks at home.

Napoli, 34, lost her job transcribing audio recordings because of the pandemic. Her husband, a electronic technician is still working, but putting food on the table and paying other bills has become a struggle. All but one of her children are school-aged. For the first time in her life, she visited a food bank.

“For me emotionally, it’s hard to admit I need help,” she said. “My children aren’t used to dealing with hunger. It’s been really difficult for them to learn the new normal.”

Feeding Tampa Bay opened the new drive-through food bank — dubbed a mega-pantry — in Manatee County in response to an all-time high demand for meals and groceries from local food banks. Mega pantries already operate in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, serving an average of almost 4,000 people every week. The program will be expanded to Pasco and Polk counties in June.

Even as Florida reopens, nonprofits are warning that the number of people in need because of the coronavirus pandemic is still rising. Feeding Tampa Bay estimates that the number of “food insecure” people in its 10-county region has risen from 600,000 to more than 1.3 million during the pandemic. Food insecurity is defined as lacking regular access to affordable, nutritious food.

The number of visitors to its website, where it lists local food banks, has risen 700 percent. The group has provided more than 10 million meals since the pandemic began.

Driving that need is a modern-day record level of unemployment in Florida, said Feeding Tampa Bay president and CEO Thomas Mantz. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 12.9 percent last week and is even higher in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

And the worst may be yet to come, Mantz warned. He’s advised his governing board that summer and early fall likely will bring even more hardship. Families who got their last paycheck in March are accumulating credit card and other debt and falling behind in rent and utility bills. That is only going to snowball, he said.

“Everybody feels that the crisis is right now,” he said. “We won’t see a return to normal, whatever that would be defined as, for 12 to 18 months.”

Other nonprofit groups have equally gloomy forecasts about the economic plight of many families.

Rent and mortgage arrears will be piling up for families who have lost their income, and so will other expenses, said Jim Gillen, vice president of communications for United Way Suncoast. Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a stay on evictions, but that is set to expire June 2.

Even before the pandemic, a United Way study found that about 43 percent of Florida households were struggling to pay for rent, groceries, transportation, childcare and medical bills.

Gillen now sees more families falling below the federal poverty level and more struggling just above it. The promise by utility companies to not cut people off can last only so long, he said.

At a recent food bank he attended, those in need included a car dealership owner and a handyman, both driving cars sporting decals advertising their businesses.

“There’s a tremendous bubble that’s going to burst here,” Gillin said. “Bad as it is now, people are going to be faced with an onslaught of rent and utilities and all these things coming up at the same time.”

The new Manatee food bank was opened after local food banks gave out 1.3 million pounds of food between March 1 and May 22. The pantry will be open every Tuesday.

Each adult inside a car was given boxes of groceries, including canned goods, snacks, yogurt, peanut butter, fresh produce and milk. No questions were asked about why people were there. Feeding Tampa Bay’s belief is that if you are prepared to line up at a food bank, then you are entitled to help.

More than two hours after it opened on Tuesday, cars were still going through, more than 900 in all.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who spoke briefly to about 50 volunteers before the food bank opened, said she was glad Feeding Tampa Bay had come to the county she represents.

“When I saw how long that line was, I almost started crying,” she said.

Denise Bermudez waited more than two hours in the line. Her husband had been furloughed from his job as a boat repairer. He has applied for unemployment, but has not received a check.

So far, they have managed on their savings, but their money is running out. They have four kids.

“I’m getting stressed about it,” she said.

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