They shared a common thread. Over 600 families showed up at Faith Baptist Church in New Port Richey Friday morning so they could give their families something unattainable before: Christmas dinner.
Initiated by former state Rep., Sen. and current Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano 21 years ago, Friday’s annual Farm Share Holiday Food Giveaway drew needy residents from throughout Pasco County.
Many arrived in barely operating cars, on rusty bicycles and tricycles and a few by public transportation. They drew from a well of woes as they told their stories to their destitute fellows and the 75 or so volunteers orchestrating the event. Bankruptcy, illness, job loss, death and repossessed cars described their varied reasons to line up as early as Thursday evening. Their common bond, though, was a need to feed their families over the holidays.
Minister Tony Locacio of Hudson said he arrived 9 p.m. Thursday. That afforded him the first place in line when the giveaway started 12 hours later. Accompanied by his pal – a rescued border collie/Australian cattle dog, Katie – the 74-year-old had an 11 a.m. doctor’s appointment he could not miss. Plus, he needed the food desperately.
Plagued by his own health problems the past several years, Locacio moved in with Jane, his widowed sister-in-law, several months ago to help her recover from her own debilitating illnesses.
Locacio and Katie camped out in the back of Jane’s 2006 maroon Nissan Pathfinder, he in a sleeping bag and Katie draped in a blanket. They got about two hours’ sleep.
“It’s refreshing to know that there are humans in our world, our community – that really care,” Locacio said.
Using inmate labor and volunteers, Farm Share re-sorts and packages an abundance of surplus food and distributes it to people, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, churches and other organizations feeding Florida’s hungry, all free of charge.
Farms Share State Operations Manager Jinny Botwin, working late Friday from the Homestead center, said that in 2014, the organization fed 4 million households, each with at least three people. Some households, including many migrants and people from the islands including Haiti, have as many as 10 people per household.
Started in 1991 by Patricia Robbins with a spiral notebook and a pencil, the Homestead resident got the idea when she questioned the destination of a dump truck filled with squash. Upon hearing it was being discarded, Farm Share was born.
Fasano, then a freshman member of the House of Representatives, recognized the need in his community and connected the dots to take care of his constituents.
“It continues to grow exponentially each year,” Fasano said. “Last year we ran out of food again after feeding 500 families and had to turn people away. This year, we purchased additional food including 600 hams, 600 bags of potatoes, 600 cans of veggies and lots of candy canes.”
Relying on his office staff, volunteers from Bear Creek Nursing Rehabilitation Center, Dayspring Academy, Publix, Lowe’s, Land ‘O Lakes Moving, Pasco County Sheriff’s Department, Suncoast Epilepsy Community Volunteer Corp, Pasco County Professional Firefighters and myriad community volunteers, Fasano ran the operation like clockwork.
Cars were given tickets with numbers ranging from 1-600. Each car, bicycle or person on foot, approached each of five stations to pick up bags containing food, personal hygiene products, vitamins, Band-Aids and DVDs. With the exception of the hams, potatoes, corn and candy canes, all the other goods and services were donated.
Fasano said the Southgate Publix and its manager Don Phillips, gave him a great price on the food.
Lowe’s delivery manager Jim Marcinka supervised his forklift driver, Dave Dickson, as he unloaded 40,000 pounds of mangos, tomatoes, papayas, DVD’s, vitamins, cheesecakes and pumpkin pies.
Dayspring Academy, co-founded by state Sen. John Legg and his wife Suzanne in 2000, brought its student council — under the tutelage of history teacher Harold Windlan, to volunteer.
Sen. Legg and his wife and children, — 7-year-old Jack and 5-year-old Evangeline, arrived early to volunteer. John and Suzanne Legg, volunteers since 1997, said it’s a gratifying experience for their children and themselves and perpetuates a mantra of giving back
“We remind the children that we’re so blessed with where we live and what we have,” Suzanne said. “It’s important to give back and important for the kids to see others in need so they may share what we have and realize how lucky they are.”
Upon returning home, she questioned her children about their thoughts of the day.
“A lot of people in America sure are hungry,” Jack said.
Friday was Jack’s third time volunteering at the Farm Share event. It was the second for Evangaline.
Former Marine Corp veteran David Brenner said Friday was his 10th year volunteering for the event. Compromised by his own debilitating bones and hunched over, the 77-year-old man arrived early and helped distribute the 5-pound hams.
“This is what Christmas is all about,” Brenner said. “I wish more people would realize that. I think they would be happier.”