These days, when someone comes to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic looking for food, it’s not certain that they’ll get anything.
The food pantry, which fed about 4,000 people last month, has bare shelves and is struggling to get staples – things like peanut butter, canned vegetables, canned soup, beans and pasta.
“We tend to hit these slumps [in giving],” said Beth Houghton, the Free Clinic’s executive director. “This is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The slow-down in giving is so bad, Houghton said, that “our shelves in our pantry…some of them are literally bare. There was not a canned vegetable to be seen. There was no soup.”
The free clinic, 863 Third Ave. N, has both a food bank and a food pantry.
The food bank is supplied by grocery stores, such as Publix, and other large suppliers who donate things like day-old bread and fresh fruit and vegetables that may be bruised or close to the end of their shelf life. The clinic picks up that food daily and gives 75 percent to 80 percent of it to 65 partner agencies, like smaller food banks or community kitchens, which distribute it. The rest of it goes to the clinic’s community kitchen, which supplies meals.
“That source of food remains stable throughout the year,” Houghton said.
The pantry supplies food directly to families and others who need it. The majority of the food that’s given out from the pantry is canned or otherwise able to be stored. Each person who applies is given enough to feed the members of his family for up to three days. The clinic limits each person or family to one such handout a month.
The majority of recipients are the working poor who are trying to make ends meet, or those on Social Security or other fixed incomes, or people who’ve just had a hard month and need a bit of help to get over a rough spot.
In many cases, Houghton said, “they are making the buy-my-medicine or eat” decision. The pantry supplied food to about 42,000 such people last fiscal year.
Houghton said the pantry gets a lot of donations around the holidays and in the spring when postal workers have a massive food drive. The pantry does what it can, she said, to stretch that food as far as it will go for as long as possible.
But, there are times when the pantry struggles. That’s been especially true this year, but she’s not sure why but suspects part of it is a combination of rising rents and less affordable housing, and stagnant wages.
When money gets tight, she said, people will pay the rent so they don’t get evicted. They’ll pay the electrical bill to keep the lights on. Food is the one item where they can try to skimp.
“If there’s any bump in the road, it’s going to hit food,” Houghton said.
For information on how to help or to donate, go to stpetersburgfreeclinic.org. The clinic could use donations of staples including peanut butter, rice, soup, tuna fish, diapers, baby food and even pet food.