At a recent food distribution, a little girl approached the members of the Florida National Guard who had been handing out milk, meat and produce to families in need. “It was close to the end of the day. She was maybe 5 or 6 years old. She walked up to us and was saying ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ It brought us all to tears,” said Airman Austin Smith of Jacksonville. “It was the greatest thing ever,” he said.
During the past six weeks, members of the Florida National Guard have sorted food, packed boxes of meals, and distributed milk, meat, and produce alongside Treasure Coast Food Bank’s staff in response to the coronavirus crisis. They’re just a part of more than 100 members of the Florida National Guard who have been deployed to food banks across the state. It’s a mission far different from those they’re more accustomed to, but far more rewarding, said Major Jonathan Kilpatrick.
“It’s a very different mission, but also incredibly rewarding to see the impact,” said Kilpatrick, who lives in Crawfordville outside of Tallahassee. “They are truly appreciative that we’re here.”
The members’ last day at Treasure Coast Food Bank is approaching soon. Their departure leaves a huge hole in the operation that continues to provide meals for more than 26,000 people each week. Treasure Coast Food Bank is seeking volunteers who can step in to help.
“Having the Florida National Guard here for the past six weeks has been invaluable,” said Judith Cruz, President and CEO of Treasure Coast Food Bank. “They worked anywhere we asked – in our warehouse, in our production kitchen assembling thousands of nutritious meals, and preparing more than 60,000 gallons of Florida grown vegetable soup! Along with TCFB program staff they are leading our drive-through food distributions helping us triple output to the community. We’ll definitely miss them.”
“Many of our regular volunteers are seniors who need to protect their health by limiting their exposure to others, so we’re asking area businesses to consider sharing a workday here at the Food Bank, or folks who may be tired of working from home, and people who are looking for work to join us for a day or two by helping your neighbors in need,” she said.
Treasure Coast Food Bank has implemented heightened protocols for safety, including masks and gloves for volunteers, and “drive-through” only distributions to limit contact.
While many businesses have reopened and many people have returned to work, Treasure Coast Food Bank is providing food for thousands each week who continue to struggle because of the crisis. The latest unemployment figures for the Treasure Coast show that rates nearly tripled in April, with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting more than 36,000 unemployed, an average of 13.6 percent across the three counties.
People wanting to volunteer or get more information can visit https://stophunger.org/volunteer/.
“The need is there whether it directly impacts you or not,” Kilpatrick said. “Every community needs to step up and help. I personally am happy for this mission. The experience is fantastic.”