Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and his team are used to tracking hurricanes, watching them develop off either coast and preparing their plans to respond. A pandemic and ensuing economic catastrophe, not so much.
“I think all of us looked at each other and said, goodness. This is going to be bigger than we even thought it might be,” Mantz recalls of the days in mid-March when he watched thousands upon thousands of Tampa Bay-area workers be furloughed and laid off.
Mantz says visits to Feeding Tampa Bay’s website increased 1,200% in the first days of the crisis, with calls to the organization from families and individuals looking to find food skyrocketing from around 20 per week to more than 1,000. By the time Mantz spoke to Tampa Magazines in mid-May, the number of food insecure people in the 10-county region served by Feeding Tampa Bay had nearly doubled, from 625,000 to over 1 million. They’ve provided more than 10 million meals in an eight-week period. He describes the scramble for the organization to respond to the unexpected crisis.
“As the run on food started in grocery stores, we actually started right away buying food and trying to locate other resources,” he says. The organization began reaching out to its donors to financial support as in-kind donations of food disappeared overnight. Mantz says this is the first time in Feeding Tampa Bay’s history that the organization has had to purchase food.
“In essence, we’ve had to change our entire business model,” he explains. Typically, people are allowed to “shop” the Feeding Tampa Bay warehouse, choosing the items they want or need. Now, to comply with CDC guidelines, cars pull up to the warehouse and pop the trunk, where gloved and masked volunteers place boxes and bags of food. Trinity Cafe, where patrons would receive a restaurant-style hot meal brought to them by a server, became a to-go-only operation. To meet the needs of seniors and others who couldn’t safely leave their homes during the pandemic, Trinity Cafe partnered with four local restaurants to keep those businesses’ workers employed and ramped up the cafe’s production from 500 meals a day to an eye-popping 8,500 meals cooked, prepared and delivered to individuals in need every day.
“We have had to turn everything we had worked hard to set up for many years and say, OK, we need to do this completely differently,” Mantz explains. “I’m so proud of our staff and our board and our volunteers that have helped us figure out how to do that on the fly.”
Mantz says it’s sometimes been challenging for staff and volunteers to have less personal contact with the people they’re helping. In recent surveys, Feeding Tampa Bay has learned that about 70% of individuals who have come through a food line since the beginning of the pandemic had never been to one before. The organization’s volunteers usually take the opportunity to share other local resources individuals might need, but what was once a conversation has been forced to become a list of phone numbers passed through a car window. Still, Mantz says, his team is doing whatever they can to keep that human connection.
“Empathy is an important part of our skillset, and dignity is what we want to make sure we provide,” he says. “When someone comes through, and we have masks on and gloves on, we work hard in our distributions to still acknowledge everyone and say hello and make sure they can see us.”
In return, the organization has seen a generosity of resources, time and spirit. While most individuals don’t have the means to fund the purchase of 750,000 meals like Tampa Bay Buccaneer Tom Brady and his wife, Gisele Bundchen, Mantz says an incalculable number of people have given whatever they can afford — whether that be the amount of their stimulus check or a few dollars.
“We have had people who have been on our food line who have said, here’s $5, I can give you that. I’m having to get food from you, but I’d at least like to give you some support,” Mantz says.
While the struggle has been great for so many, he notes, so too has been the impact of those able to help.
“I think the thing that is so affirming for us is the collective will of our community to make sure neighbors are OK.”
To find food in your neighborhood, donate or volunteer with Feeding Tampa Bay, visit feedingtampabay.org.