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Feeding Tampa Bay unveils Community Empowerment Center

Mark Parker

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Feeding Tampa Bay President and CEO Thomas Mantz, far left, leads a panel discussion Thursday. Photos by Mark Parker.

With the unveiling of its Community Empowerment Center Thursday, Feeding Pinellas introduced a location where community members can access nutritious food, health services and job resources – and have hope for a better future.

Feeding Pinellas is a local spinoff of Feeding Tampa Bay, which has served the residents of its 10-county region for 39 years. The Community Empowerment Center, in the The Northwest Presbyterian Church at 6330 54th Ave N., takes a holistic approach to address hunger, bringing a myriad of community partners together to deliver food assistance and break down the various barriers that prevent people from living a healthy and happy life.

“If you’ve ever stood and served another human being a meal, provided them a service, or stepped into a moment where they are at their lowest – it’s a sacred obligation and an important moment for them and for you,” said Thomas Mantz, President and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay.

“Everyone matters, everyone belongs, and dignity should be available for everyone that comes into our world.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman delivered an opening statement at Thursday’s event, which included an in-depth discussion moderated by Mantz. The panel included Commissioner Charlie Justice, Assistant Superintendent Lori Matway, Keri Eisenbeis, Vice President of Government and Community Relations for Baycare, and agency partner Angela Rouson.

Mantz called the people that Feeding Tampa Bay encounters arguably the bravest they have ever seen. “Most of us would collapse under the weight and the pressure that these families are under,” he said.

Rouson noted that recent hardships associated with the pandemic have changed the makeup of people she offers services to, and counseled her volunteers to not think differently of people that may show up asking for assistance while also driving nice cars.

“This is a challenge for everyone, and I have nothing but great respect for someone who can admit that they need help and isn’t afraid to show up and get it,” said Rouson. “We’ve seen a continued diversity of people that are coming in need.”

Mantz explained that food insecurity and health issues are directly correlated and pointed out that Baycare donated a wellness machine, which takes blood pressure readings and performs other health diagnostics. to the Empowerment Center. Eisenbeis said the intersection of hunger and health was not always recognized the way it is today.

In 2019, Baycare and other nonprofit health organizations surveyed over 20,000 people in the region, and for the first time, asked respondents if they are experiencing food insecurity.

“Alarmingly, just shy of 30% of respondents said yes,” Eisenbeis said. “So, we said this is a genuine, bona fide community health need, and we need to do something about it.”

Matway gave special credit to Lynn Geist, Director of Food and Nutrition for Pinellas County Schools. Geist led a team of volunteers into the community during the height of the pandemic to make sure the county’s children were not going hungry. For many schoolchildren, the free meal they receive at school is the only food they will have that day.

“I say that she wears a cape, and she truly does wear that cape,” said Matway. “So, when you ask the question about need – it has increased ten-fold.”

Matway said over 50% of the entire county’s school population is now on free or reduced lunch.

“If you look right or you look left, someone is food insecure,” she said.

Mantz added that everyone in the crowded event space has a moral obligation and responsibility to address that harrowing statistic.

The first step in addressing hunger and quality of life issues is bringing awareness to the problem. Eisenbeis said Feeding Tampa Bay deserves an A+ for its success in building awareness, both in the community and with corporate sponsors.

She said people at every level of government are asking what they can do to help, where the barriers are, and what specific needs exist. She acknowledged that sometimes it is hard to give government officials exact answers on what they should do, but the time is right to take that step.

Justice noted that many times the person in need is not aware of what services are available, and that is why he is excited for the wraparound services the Empowerment Center provides, in addition to a hot meal and groceries.

The center features the Trinity Café, a free, full-service restaurant for those that need a healthy meal. When someone sits down at a table at the Trinity Café, the seat is theirs until they decide to leave. Volunteers will also come and sit with people as they eat, to create a sense of community. Another volunteer will serve the hot meal just like any other restaurant.

The Empowerment Center also offers assistance with programs like SNAP, Medicaid and WIC. There is an expansive food pantry that offers fresh fruits and vegetables, along with refrigerated goods and non-perishables. Feeding Tampa Bay’s FRESHforce program also provides workforce development and on-the-job training to individuals with barriers to employment.

“The Community Empowerment Center that we’re opening today is about dignity, it’s about respect, it’s about opportunity, it’s about partnership and it’s about the future,” said Mantz.

 

 

 

 

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    Tampa Bay Cannons

    October 29, 2021at11:17 am

    We were given the honor of being one of the guests at this ceremony and to tour the new facility. The appreciation, respect and gratitude we feel for being partner to Feeding Tampa Bay is vast! We’re constantly impressed with the thoughtfulness and caring which goes into every effort they put forth to our community. We’re proud to stand with FTB for the community.

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