Feature

Second Helping

Second Harvest Food Bank empowers, sustains, and nourishes lives through
compassionate distribution and community engagement initiatives.

Do you have a favorite memory of food? Maybe it’s an early memory, like watching your grandma cook her famous pot roast. Maybe it’s cooking with your mom during the holidays, trying new recipes. Maybe it’s you and your significant other’s favorite date night spot, in your bar seats, giggling over a shared creme brûlée. For me and many others, food holds cherished memories that evoke a range of emotions, from nostalgia to delight. It’s a universal language that is beloved, transcending cultural boundaries and bringing people together.

Until it isn’t.

Consider Tonya*, a survivor of domestic violence, who resides anonymously in a group home, striving to rebuild her life.Or Janet, a 68-year-old woman raising five great-grandkids on a limited social security budget, struggling to put food on the table after paying rent and utilities.Then there’s Crystal’s family of six, surviving solely on fish caught from local waters, where a scarcity of fish means a scarcity of food.

For more than 500,000 people in our community, hunger is a daily reality.

And it’s the mission of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida to bridge those gaps.

“We’ve never fully met the need for food in Florida; there’s always a gap of unmet necessities that we keep trying to grow into. Every time we think we’re getting close, something knocks us back.”

True Food

You could easily miss Second Harvest if you weren’t looking for it. It’s tucked amidst a sea of strip malls, Asian groceries, and repair shops off Colonial Drive on a tiny road called Mercy Drive near downtown Orlando. You could live here your entire life and not know Second Harvest was there at all.

I know, because that was me. But at 7:36 am on a Tuesday, my life was changed by one right-hand turn.

Despite its unassuming location, Second Harvest’s sprawling 100,000-square-foot distribution center spans two city blocks, serving as a lifeline for countless individuals and families in need. Its walls house event space, executive offices, multiple conference spaces, classrooms, commercial kitchens, volunteer break spaces, and enough food storage space to hold 1.5 million pounds of product at any given time.

And if that wasn’t enough, Second Harvest distributes enough food for 300,000 meals per day.

Read that again: 300,000 meals every day.

According to Greg Higgerson, Chief Development Officer of Second Harvest, this demand has only intensified within the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.And yet, today, the number remains the same. “The people who are most vulnerable in society will unfortunately be the last to recover,” Greg shares. “We’ve never fully met the need for food in Florida; there’s always a gap of unmet necessities that we keep trying to grow into.Every time we think we’re getting close, something knocks us back.”

Florida’s rising population in the wake of the pandemic has led to “inflation hotspots” across the state: neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, where wages have yet to catch up to the cost of living. Last year, we saw the largest annual increase in food prices since the 1980s. Credit card debt is also on the rise, exceeding the previous record set in the fourth quarter of 2019, as families resort to high-interest borrowing to cover essentials like housing and food.

In a country that prides itself on hard work, initiative, and the American dream, we’re seeing parents who are working full-time at $20 an hour—maybe stringing together multiple jobs —but aren’t earning enough to buy a house, save for retirement, or send their children to college.They may not even be earning enough to ensure everyone in their household has enough to eat.

On that Tuesday morning, I naively thought I would be one of just a handful of volunteers. As the clock moved closer to 8 am, I was shocked to see a lobby packed with more than 65 volunteers. Parents, children, kids from a local camp, groups from Disney, groups from Wounded Warriors, and countless other community advocates had arrived.

Together, we were led into two volunteer areas, easily 10 times the size of a Costco. Towering over me were hundreds of pallets stacked with banana boxes filled with unsorted meat products and dry goods beyond imagination.

I was given a pair of gloves to protect me from paper cuts, the dirt/grime (I was confused by this until I saw the state of the food I was sorting), and to help me grip the items I was to sort. With a smile and a slightly overwhelmed nod, the music turned on, and I began working through my never-ending stack of dry goods. The types of food had no rhyme or reason: rice, noodles, cat food, chips, and Nutella—all in large bins waiting to be sorted, checked, and inspected. Throughout the three-hour shift, we sorted through 11,074 pounds of food—that’s just about the size of a full-grown African elephant.

"We are transforming people's lives. Not only through meals, but through job and life coaching, nutrition counseling, and education."

Food, however, isn’t enough. Greg shares, “We feel pretty strongly that we’re not going to ‘food bank’ our way out of this, so we need to do some other things that are available to us—help people that way.”

Recognizing that food alone cannot solve systemic issues, the organization offers comprehensive programs aimed at addressing the root causes of hunger. One such initiative is the Culinary Training Program, a 16-week educational opportunity designed to equip adults facing employment barriers with essential culinary skills and life training.

“Through this kind of work, with our core mission, we’re feeding the line of people who need help,” Greg says.

Along with training, the program helps teach students financial management, interview skills, and creating a successful resume. The result? A transformative journey that culminates in graduation ceremonies and, more importantly, the promise of a brighter future.

“It’s extremely emotional on graduation day, for a lot of these people, because they’ve never graduated from anything. We get to give them the gift of a graduation ceremony and a job to walk into,” Chef Izzy says proudly. Through this program, he and Second Harvest Food Bank have changed the lives of 470 people. By empowering individuals to overcome obstacles and pursue meaningful careers in the food industry, Second Harvest is creating a ripple effect that reverberates far beyond its walls.

“Through this kind of work, with our core mission, we’re feeding the line of people who need help.”

Food You

Leaving the food bank, I drove home in silence. I couldn’t shake the profound sense of gratitude and inspiration that filled me. I was utterly moved by the dedication and compassion exhibited by every volunteer and staff member, underscoring their mission—a mission as simple as helping your neighbor. Something that we all have the power to do, regardless of where or who we are.

During my two-day volunteering experience with Second Harvest Food Bank, I was curious if any of the food I sorted would make its way to Winter Garden. To my surprise, I discovered that there are 13 feeding partners, all within a five-mile radius of my front door. It was truly sobering, considering many of us are completely unaware of the sheer need, let alone the amount of help available locally.

Through partnerships such as Feeding America, a strong staff, and a herd of volunteers, Second Harvest is not only nourishing bodies but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. “We are transforming people’s lives. Not only through meals, but through job and life coaching, nutrition counseling, and education,” echoes Erika Spence, Communications Manager and Storyteller for the Food Bank.

Yet, the stark truth remains: hunger is an ever-present challenge, and it does not discriminate. It touches the lives of every individual, young or old, rich or poor. Whether it’s your next-door neighbor, your child’s closest friend, your dedicated employee, or maybe even yourself. In this shared struggle, Second Harvest stands as support, extending its reach to all corners of our community. It’s a reminder that in our collective journey, as we navigate our own challenges, we have the opportunity to uplift others. Second Harvest is here for all of us, and we should be there for Second Harvest.

Food Bank Stats

300,000 meals sent out per day

800 Store pickups per week

7 Counties served

76 million meals in a year

16-17 million dollars worth of government-provided food

750 nonprofit feeding partners
Yet, the stark truth remains: hunger is an ever-present challenge, and it does not discriminate.

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