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St. Petersburg Free Clinic buys Lealman building to expand food bank

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Bonnie Hechtkopf has searched for a way to honor her husband, Jared, ever since he died 15 years ago.

She thinks she’s found it.

Hechtkopf donated enough money to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic to buy a warehouse, rehab and renovate it to be used as a food bank that will provide food to more than 60,000 hungry people each month. It will be named the Jared S. Hechtkopf Community Food Bank.

“This is perfect,” Hechtkopf said. “I wanted something big.”

The building, at 3115 44th Ave. N in the Joe’s Creek Industrial Park section of Lealman, will take the place of the existing food bank in St. Petersburg. That bank, established in 1980 as the second food bank in Florida, is located in a residential neighborhood and has become too small for the needs of the community.

Unlike a food pantry, which supplies boxes or bags of food directly to those who need it, a food bank acts more like a distribution center, Free Clinic executive director Beth Houghton said.

The clinic gathers food from donors, like Publix. The food then goes to food pantries which supply it to those who need it.

The Free Clinic has seen the need for food continue to grow despite the economic recovery. The volume of food provided has more than doubled in recent years, from 1.6 million pounds in 2010 to an expected 3.5 million pounds this year.

Houghton said the Free Clinic plans to supply between 5.7 million to 6 million pounds of food annually in three years’ time. That will still leave about a 5 million pound gap between supply and need, she said.

“We’re not going to totally close that gap,” Houghton said. “But we’re going to work at trying.”

At 14,000 square feet, the new warehouse will significantly expand the bank’s capacity, even making room for fresh produce. And, because it’s in an industrial area, traffic is less of a concern.

Once the building is renovated, trucks will be able to deliver produce and food on one side of the building while trucks from one of the Free Clinic’s 65 partner organizations in mid- and south Pinellas are picking it up from the other side.

Hechtkopf, chairwoman at St. Petersburg-based Kobie Marketing, said she became involved with the Free Clinic about seven years ago when Kobie, which she and her husband founded, started an annual food drive.

Each year, she said, the thought was “we can do better” so “we kept upping the ante.” Kobie staff members came up with creative ideas, such as handstands for cans and a local talent show at Jannus Landing that brought in about 50,000 pounds of food for the Free Clinic. A couple of years ago, she donated a refrigerated truck to the cause.

Then, at a recent lunch with Houghton, she learned the food bank was running out of room.

“I’d been looking for a way to honor my husband who was a unique and wonderful person,” Hechtkopf said. “He was very down to earth, very funny and community-oriented. … This is something he would be very proud of.”

So she donated the money to make the $820,000 purchase and renovation possible. On Wednesday, Hechtkopf and the Free Clinic will have a kickoff event to let folks know about the new building and plans to have it operating by early 2017.

The new food bank will not affect service to individual clients who get food from the Free Clinic’s pantry. That will continue operating at the location at 863 Third Ave. N in St. Petersburg.

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