Making Saturdays happen at Our Lady’s Pantry

In a scattering of neighborhoods surrounding Wimauma, Pantry volunteers are awakening to a long morning of service.

The earliest volunteers start arriving between 3:30 a.m. – 4 a.m.  The first to arrive unlocks the gate to Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Campus, which Our Lady’s Pantry calls home.  By this time, a half dozen cars are typically in the food line, although the Pantry doesn’t begin distributing food until 7:30 a.m.

Bob Hacking, Mike Brezec, and Dick Gibbs oversee all the perishable foods to be distributed each week.  This drive-through Pantry distributes a stunning 34,000 pounds of perishable and non-perishable food to families weekly!  Bringing this food outside each Saturday is a huge job.

“We begin setting up about 4 a.m.,” Hacking says.

Men and women in bright green shirts before dawn

(From L. to R.) Greg, Bob, Joyce, Mike, Sharlene, and Al are among the earliest Pantry volunteers, coming hours before dawn to set up for Saturday morning.

While someone puts out parking cones to guide cars coming in to keep everyone safe, others are hauling out a dozen large tables, setting up two tents, and rolling out the rollers that will bring the non-perishable foods from inside to our clients’ cars.

Finally, other folks bring out the food.  First comes the breads and desserts; then a bit later, the eggs, milk, and cereals; and then about 5:30 a.m., the fresh produce — all from the walk-in cooler.  Lastly, meats and other frozen foods are carried out from the walk-in freezer.

As the Pantry opens at 7:30 a.m., the food line has continued growing, with about 30 cars here by 5 a.m., 50 by 5:30 a.m.  By shortly after 6 a.m., the line has extended onto U.S. 301 — and keeps growing.

The back story

But the real story of Saturday morning begins early in the week, with numerous volunteers helping to make it all happen.  With a total of more than 20 years committed service to Our Lady’s Pantry, Brezec, Gibbs, and Hacking are experienced at organizing the thousands of pounds of food that arrives each week.

Three men.

(From L. to R.) Dick, Mike, and Bob standing in front of the Pantry’s walk-in freezer. For many years already, these gentlemen have organized the thousands of pounds of perishable foods to be distributed every Saturday morning.

Pantry director, Tom Bullaro, says everything is so complicated today.

“When I first started here in 2004, we were serving about 50 clients most Saturdays,” says Bullaro.  “That number gradually increased to about 200 before the Pandemic.  But COVID, followed by the soaring inflation we are experiencing, changed everything.  Most weeks, we are seeing 300 clients come through for food.  Counting their families waiting at home, we are sharing food with more than 1,200 men, women, and children an average each week.

“Until a few years ago, we had one truck going to Feeding Tampa Bay (FTB) twice a week to pick up food we had ordered at wholesale prices,” he adds.  “Today, FTB is serving hundreds more pantries, so there is little left for us.  We now have three trucks on the road almost every day, picking up donations and retail orders from all over the county.”

Back in Wimauma, dozens of men and women begin the arduous task of unloading the trucks and organizing the food for Saturday ‘s distribution.

“When we receive fresh produce early in the week, we need to decide if it’s fresh enough to last until Saturday,” says Brezec.  “When it’s not, we give it to Beth-el and Calvary, whose food banks are open earlier in the week than we are.  Except for the food we get from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we don’t know what our donations will be from week to week, so everything is kind of upside down when the food first arrives.  We need to sort the food, then repackage huge boxes or bags of produce into family-size portions.  We then store it in the cooler until Saturday.”

“We typically get about 100 dozen boxes of eggs,” Gibbs says.  “But the boxes are often broken, so we must check every box and repack everything in clean containers.  Last week was great though.  We had lots of eggs, cereal, juices, milk, and cheese to give our families,” he says.  “We try to get everything organized on Friday, so on Saturday, we just need to roll out our pallet and we are good.”

Five women and one man sorting fresh produce

Pantry volunteers happily sorting vegetables one Friday morning.

“Three Publix markets, three Aldi’s, Sam’s Club, Sprouts, and Costco are very generous to us, consistently” says Hacking.  “If we weren’t getting as much food from these markets, as we do, we would be hurting.

"It takes many hands and many hours to do all the work that needs to be done," Hacking adds, “but the volunteers, who help us, are our backbone!”

Bullaro is so thankful for the efforts of Bob, Dick, and Mike.  They have each worked on-site a minimum of 15 hours a week — and often more — for six or seven years already.  This being an outdoor pantry, this means they and all our volunteers are working through the scorching summer heat and the sometimes-brutal temperatures of Saturday mornings in January,” he says.  “Without their consistent dedication, I sometimes wonder how we could have survived.”

Connecting with our families

Working at the Pantry is hard work, but there are rewards.

“We have a good time with the people,” says Brezec.  “Everybody knows everybody.”

“A couple ladies bring us cookies and other foods, sometimes, too,” says Hacking.

“It’s great exercise, too, but better than the gym,” says Gibbs, “because we are helping our neighbors in need.”

By 11 a.m. – 11:30 a.m., most Saturdays, the tables, tents, and rollers have been put away for another week and everyone gets to go home.

To view a two-minute video produced by Fox13News about Saturday mornings at the Pantry, please visit our home page and scroll down.  https://www.ourladyspantry.com