Behind the scenes at Our Lady’s Pantry

Our Lady’s Pantry is a small food pantry in Wimauma with a big heart and hundreds of clients.  Despite the Pantry’s limited space, volunteers distributed a stunning 1,800,000 pounds (roughly 900 tons) of food this past year!

“It takes incredible organization and attention to detail to make this happen — especially in such a small space,” says Tom Bullaro, who is co-director of Our Lady’s Pantry with his wife Anita.  “This doesn’t happen without the hundreds of helpers we have had over the years — and the dozens we have right now.

“Anita and I are especially indebted to our drivers, as well as a number of key volunteers, who manage the perishable and non-perishable foods once our trucks return from all over the county.

“Karen and Kim, for example, organize the sorting of the non-perishable food along with a dozen or more volunteers when food comes in on Tuesday and Friday,” Bullaro says.  “This is more complicated than one would imagine.”

Two women in florescent green shirts standing by boxes of food

Kim (on the left) and Karen manage all of the non-perishable foods at Our Lady's Pantry in Wimauma.

“If we purchase food, we don’t need to weigh it,” says Karen.  “We just put it on our shelves.  Feeding Tampa Bay, however, gives us rules for accepting store donations, all of which must be weighed.  We get donations from Costco, Sam's, Publix, Aldi's, Sprouts, Big Lots, and Dollar General.  We either weigh the food on our pallet or on a smaller box scale.”

“But we can’t simply log in the weight,” says Kim.  “We need to record donations by category.  So, after we have the overall weight from a given vendor, we need to divide the boxes into three categories — either meat, bread, or produce.  We place these boxes on a smaller scale, by category, so we can record precisely how many pounds of meat, bread, or produce we receive from each vendor.  We log these weights into the computer, so stores can get tax credit for their donations to our Pantry.

Karen and Kim are constantly vigilant about food safety, Bullaro points out.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directs Kim to date every USDA carton as it rolls off our truck, and then to use that food within 60 days.

And Karen, who manages all non-USDA foods, goes by the dates provided to her from Feeding Tampa Bay for food safety.  These rules detail how long food is safe past their “best used by” date.  Cereals, for example, are safe for a year beyond their “best used by” date. Karen and her helpers check every donation received from anywhere throughout the community to ensure that each item given to our clients is safe.

“Karen and Kim are busy almost every day of the week with some task or another,” says Bullaro.  “Kim schedules our drivers and manages pickups at different markets.  And Karen trains our new volunteers and orders our food from Feeding Tampa Bay. Both girls manage the distribution of these foods on Saturday mornings.

“Pantry jobs are not glamorous,” Bullaro says.  “They are time consuming, sometimes boring, often involve heavy lifting, and can be exhausting.  But they reflect the power of community with neighbors coming together to help fight hunger in our little corner of the world.

“We couldn’t do what we do without dedicated helpers like Karen and Kim, who freely give of their time to help others.”