The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) and area nonprofits are asking residents to help their food-insecure neighbors by dropping off a special package at their mailboxes this weekend.
Since 1983, the NALC has conducted the nation’s largest food drive on the second Saturday in May. On Saturday, May 14, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County will join over 10,000 locations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam to help Stamp out Hunger, following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
Participation in Stamp Out Hunger is simple and efficient. Residents leave donations of non-perishable food items next to their mailbox before Saturday’s delivery time. Letter carriers gather the groceries as they deliver mail along their normal routes and then distribute them to local food banks, pantries, shelters and churches. Al Friedman, president of the Florida chapter of NALC, said all the food collected stays in that community and called the program the definition of neighbors helping neighbors.
“You never know the situation your neighbor down the block is in,” said Friedman, who oversees Florida’s food drive. “Are they on the edge of foreclosure? Are they on the verge of losing their job or have an illness?”
Mail carriers are uniquely suited for this type of job, said Friedman, calling them the eyes and ears of a community. He said they stop at every house and 160 million mailboxes each day – even delivering packages on Sunday.
Statistics underscore the program’s success. During the last Stamp Out Hunger event in 2019, carriers collected 32 billion pounds of groceries nationwide. Florida residents paced the country, donating 11 billion pounds of food in one day.
Melinda Perry, Chief Operating Officer for Pinellas-based Hope Villages of America (HVA), said her organization represents 20% of the county’s post offices, receiving and distributing the donations into the community. She said HVA typically amasses 100,000 pounds of food during the event.
“I think there are about 30 post offices (in Pinellas),” said Perry. “So, you could figure, potentially, they’re collecting over half a million pounds of food.”
While Friedman and Perry agree that the numbers are impressive, it is never enough to meet the need. They both said the donations would only last through the summer – a critical time as kids take their annual break from school.
According to the NALC, one in eight Americans experiences hunger. Friedman said the number that resonates with him is that 16 million children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night.
“Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco – they all say that the amount of kids on reduced or free lunches is almost 80%,” he said. “Where are these kids going to get that free breakfast or lunch?”
HVA utilizes around 90 food banks and pantries across Pinellas, some on college campuses. Perry said its mobile food pantry frequents local recreational centers, churches and low-income communities to ensure the food reaches the people that need it the most.
Perry said the pandemic made many people realize they are only one job loss or illness away from food insecurity. She noted “some really nice cars” participating in drive-through distribution events, indicating an expansion in the typical demographics.
In addition to the rising need caused by the pandemic, Perry said summer is a time when food insecurity increases while donations decrease.
“It’s summer – people are enjoying their life and getting busy,” she said. “So, it’s (local food insecurity) definitely been on the rise.”
Friedman said the program “absolutely” makes a difference in the community but added that he sees food banks collecting 200,000 pounds of nourishment, “and that’s gone by August.” He relayed that the shelves were bare during a recent visit to Metropolitan Ministries.
There is nothing more humbling for a person than to go to a local nonprofit asking for groceries, said Friedman, and there is nothing worse than a food bank turning someone away because it has nothing to give.
“That’s what your readers need to know,” said Friedman. “You want to see what’s going on in America today – visit a food bank.”
Local postal carriers are also giving a little extra Saturday. In addition to personal donations, Friedman said many scheduled to have that day off volunteered to assist their colleagues. He noted that apartment complexes provide a unique challenge with hundreds of mailboxes and hundreds of pounds of food, and the volunteers typically drive their own vehicles.
Friedman said the number of postal workers who thoroughly enjoy what the day stands for “is overwhelming.”
The NALC usually provides specific bags for the occasion and a postcard as a reminder. However, after a two-year hiatus and with little notice that Stamp Out Hunger would continue this year, the NALC is dependent on local word-of-mouth. Friedman added that any bag would suffice.
He also noted that Fox-13/WTVT would host a live morning show Saturday from a local post office, reminding residents to help Stamp Out Hunger.
“If you don’t stop and put food in your mailbox then you don’t have a heart of gold,” said Friedman. “You have a stone heart.”