In recent years, putting food on the table has become increasingly difficult for many families. While the onset of the COVID pandemic brought a temporary respite through additional food benefits, stimulus disbursements and expanded social services, the termination of these benefits, coupled with rising housing costs and the high price of inflation on all consumer goods, particularly food, has made 2023 an exceptionally difficult year for those grappling with food insecurity.
Within Escambia County, food insecurity rates hold steady at levels equal to or worse than state and national averages, both in the overall age category and among children. According to the 2021 data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, 17.9 percent of children in Escambia County experience food insecurity, surpassing the rates in Florida (14.3 percent) and the United States (12.8 percent). The overall food insecurity rate in Escambia County stands at 11.6 percent, exceeding the rates for Florida (10.6 percent) and the United States (10.4 percent).
And there seems to be no end in sight. At home food prices jumped 13.5 percent from 2021 into 2022 the largest annual increase since May 1979, according to data released in September 2022 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These increases have contributed to and are expected to continue creating an increase in food insecurity for children and families.
Associate Executive Director of Manna Food Bank, Kerri Smayda does not expect these increases to slow down. “Families will continue to find it difficult to feed their families the right quantity and quality of food due to this economic climate,” she said.
In fact, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), overall food prices were 3.7 percent higher in September 2023 than in September 2022. Food prices are expected to grow more slowly in 2023 than in 2022 but still at above historically average rates according to the USDA Food Price Outlook for 2023 and 2024. In 2024, all food prices (including both at home and away from home food) are predicted to increase 2.9 percent.
While food insecurity remains a year-round issue, its impact intensifies during the holiday season, causing deeper financial and emotional strain. The holidays, synonymous with bountiful feasts, pose a considerable challenge for families struggling to provide even basic meals on a daily basis. As the festive season approaches, we urge you to consider supporting local charities committed to alleviating hunger in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. While we’ve highlighted a few notable organizations, there are numerous other nonprofits throughout our community working toward the same cause. Find one that speaks to you and make this a true season of giving.
Feeding the Gulf Coast
Feeding the Gulf Coast (FTGC) is a Feeding America-affiliated organization that serves those facing poverty, crisis or food insecurity throughout South Alabama, South Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle. The organization’s services extend across 24 counties and include multiple hunger relief programs that address a variety of at-risk populations, including school-aged children facing food insecurity.
According to FTGC Director of Marketing and Communications, Amanda Young, “Many teachers in our community report students
who come to school hungry because the last meal they have eaten was a school lunch—oftentimes not eating for an entire weekend.” Young added that one in seven children in our area face food insecurity. FTGC offers two programs that address this issue head-on: the Backpack Program and the School Pantry Program.
The Backpack Program provides younger children with a pre-packed bag containing six meals and two snacks to help keep them full through the weekend. The School Pantry Program is similar to the Backpack Program, except it targets older children and allows them to select their own foods or toiletry items from an on-campus pantry based on their individual needs.
“We work directly with school counselors and social workers to pinpoint which students are experiencing food insecurity. We have a list of signs that we share with our guidance counselors and social workers to assist them in assessing if a child is experiencing food insecurity,” Young explained. “Across our Florida service area, we have distributed 42,868 meals through both programs in 2023, serving 4,428 children.”
Members of the public can get involved with both programs by sponsoring a child. If you are interested in getting involved with any of FTGC’s programs, visit feedingthegulfcoast.org or call (888) 704-FOOD.
Manna Food Pantries
Manna Food Pantries is a Pensacola-based organization that provides nutritious food to hungry individuals across Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Established in 1983, Manna has now served hungry children, senior citizens, veterans, families and individuals for more than 40 years.
According to Manna Marketing and Events Manager, Melissa Branton, “It is Manna’s priority to provide the healthiest food possible for neighbors in need through its emergency food assistance pantry and its 17 food security programs with 24 community partners.” Manna focuses on providing hungry individuals with healthy and nutritious foods. All of the organization’s food bags—apart from the School
Resource Officer (SRO) program, as those focus on grab-and-go food items—meet USDA standards for a healthy diet. “All of Manna’s programs and partnerships are designed to address the hungerrelated needs of neighbors facing food insecurity with access to nutritious food,” Branton said.
This year, Manna has provided significantly more food to hungry individuals than in 2022. “In 2023, Manna distributed 803,338 pounds of food to 86,890 people, a 25 percent increase over the year prior,” Branton explained. As the number of people in need increases, food pantries need more help now than ever.
If you are interested in helping Manna in the fight against hunger in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, consider donating time, money or nonperishable goods. For more information on how to donate or get involved, visit mannahelps.org.
Waterfront Rescue Mission
Waterfront Rescue Mission is a faith-based organization that has supported hungry and homeless individuals along the Gulf Coast since 1949. Though many think of Waterfront as a men’s shelter, the organization offers much more than that. “We serve anyone who is hungry or alone,” explained Waterfront Director of PR and Development, Mark Isbell.
Waterfront offers a variety of programs to address the needs of the hungry and homeless in the area including addiction recovery, work training and veteran’s programs. The organization also offers open arms to everyone in the community through its daytime services which are available to men, women and children.
“Monday through Friday, anyone can come to campus and get a shower, access laundry, meals and clothing. We also have several community partners that will come to the mission such as Lakeview for mental health and Community Health Northwest Florida which has a clinic here on site if there are health issues. Our goal is to provide a safe place for people,” Isbell explained.
Waterfront has served 124,593 meals from January to September 2023. According to Isbell, 90 percent of the food that Waterfront serves to those facing food insecurity comes from donations. Due to the importance of food donations, donating goods is an excellent way to help Waterfront in their mission of supporting the Gulf Coast’s hungry and homeless populations.
Individuals can get involved with Waterfront by donating food, money or time preparing meals in the kitchen. To learn more about how to get involved, visit waterfrontmission.org.
Council on Aging of West Florida
Council on Aging of West Florida (COA) is a Pensacola-based organization that serves, supports and advocates for seniors in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. One way the organization serves seniors is through one of its longest-running programs, Meals on Wheels (MoW). COA has offered MoW to vulnerable seniors across Northwest Florida since 1974, only two years after COA was founded.
Many seniors face food insecurity due to a lack of transportation or the inability to leave home on their own to grocery shop. Programs such as MoW bring food to the doorstep of these individuals, providing them with stress-free meals.
“Having the weeks’ worth of meals brought directly to their home allows them to have the nutrition they need without having to coordinate transportation or depend on someone in their life to bring them food or groceries. It allows them to live independently with the food resources they need,” explained COA Marketing Communications Director, Emily Echevarria.
To receive subsidized MoW, seniors must participate in an assessment to determine eligibility via the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Once approved, seniors can receive meals each week.
Volunteers deliver meals and form relationships with the seniors whom they deliver to, providing both socialization and wellness checks. “These [individuals] are by and large homebound seniors that are served by Council on Aging case managers,” Echevarria said. “Sometimes the delivery driver might be the only visitor the client sees that week, so this socialization is another important part of the program.”
COA’s MoW program has provided 85,519 meals to 355 individuals this past year. COA will accept donations to support the MoW program if specified in the donation’s description. To donate or learn more about the program, visit coawfla.org.
The Argo Pantry is a free on-campus resource that provides nutritious and healthy foods to currently enrolled UWF students. Since 2014, the Argo Pantry has provided meals, perishable items, nonperishable goods and toiletry items to UWF students in need.
“The Argo Pantry works to address food insecurity among college students by providing perishable and nonperishable food items to students,” explained Assistant Dean of Students, Jasmine Rucker. “The Argo Pantry also provides fresh fruits and vegetables monthly, along with providing students meal swipes to the on-campus dining locations.”
According to Rucker, the pantry receives about 2,000 visits per school-year and reaches about 300 additional students at on-campus events. “During the Fall 2023 semester, the Argo Pantry will provide over 8,000 non-perishable items to students,” Rucker explained.
The Argo Pantry is located in the Dean of Students Office in Building 18 on the UWF campus and is open Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 3 pm. Students can access the pantry once a week using their student identification card.
In addition to the one pantry location, two Argo ‘Cantries’ are accessible to students as well. These are boxes that allow students quick access to nonperishable food items. The Argo ‘Cantries’ are located behind the Pace Library Coffee House and in a grassy area of parking lot H.
To learn more or get involved with the Argo Pantry, search Argo Pantry at uwf.edu. The pantry is currently in need of canned proteins (meats, soups, beans, etc.) and other non-perishable items, which can be found on the pantry’s Amazon Wish List at amazon.com/registry/wishlist/2TXELE8FYUUXG.