Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry Fills an Ever-growing Need

By:  Pamela Varkony.  
It’s early on a Tuesday morning at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Migrant Mission Church, just south of Sun City Center, on US Highway 301, in Wimauma. You don’t expect to see activity at a church on a weekday, but that’s not the case this morning. A white box truck pulls into a back parking lot; the tailgate rolls up to reveal a cargo of crates and boxes packed to the roof.  A waiting swarm of twenty volunteers swing in to action, rolling out a portable conveyor belt. Boxes of shiny red peppers and lush cherry tomatoes whizz by on their way to being sorted and packaged. It’s food stocking day at Our Lady’s Pantry.

Man and woman in blue shirts standing behind a conveyor belt full of tomatoes

Tom and Anita welcoming families one Saturday morning.

Our Lady's Pantry began in 1999 when the Knights of Columbus, and their wives, of Prince of Peace Catholic Church, in Sun City Center, first provided food for 25 families in the vestibule of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. That effort has grown to serving over two hundred twenty five families a week.

Pressured by an ever-increasing need from the community, a few years later, the Pantry moved into a portion of the classroom building on the far side of the Our Lady of Guadalupe campus. Recently the Pantry has moved again, expanding across the back of the building into what was the thrift store.

A former stock room become the refrigerator/freezer room; rows of old white refrigerators line the walls waiting to receive the frozen meat, along with fresh fruits and vegetables that are donated each week, much of it from local sources, like the recent bounty of strawberries from Goodson Farms.

For the past eleven years the Pantry has been run by Tom Bullaro and his wife Anita who serves as co-director. Tom and his logistics team work behind the scenes, getting food from Feeding America Tampa Bay and other sources, including Publix and Panera, then delivering it to the Pantry.  Anita works at the Pantry with the volunteers, over fifty in all.  Some of the volunteers once received food there. When their circumstances improved, they returned to give back to the organization that helped them.

Everyone pitches in to unload the truck, sort the food, stock the shelves and freezers. They then pack up boxes of groceries to be given to families who come from Balm, Wimauma, and Sun City Center.

The Pantry is open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. each Saturday morning. The families who come for food represent a cross-section of the community. Spanish, Indian, and African dialects are heard in the crowd. Children play while their parents stand in line; the elderly, some who can barely walk need assistance getting to their car.

Anyone needing food is asked for proof of residency the first time they come. Some form of personal identification, along with some proof of address, like a utility bill, with a name and address on it that matches the ID.

The person will then be registered and assigned to one of two groups.  Each group comes for food every other week.

In addition to the many daily needs of the Pantry, Bullaro’s dream is to have a walk-in refrigerator which would allow the Pantry to accept many more donations of fresh produce. The cost of making that dream come true is estimated at $20,000.

A donation of $100 buys 555 pounds of food based on the purchase rate of eighteen cents a pound when purchased from the Tampa Food Bank, the central source for supplying food banks in the region.

The Pantry’s truck used to transport food supplies is ten years old and has been on the road for 180,000 miles. Bullaro believes a newer, used refrigerated truck would cost about $60,000.

The need for volunteers and donations is urgent and ongoing. Pat McAdams who moved to Kings Point two years ago and has made Our Lady’s Pantry one of the focal points of her volunteerism, said, "We could use some strong young men, in particular, to join our Pantry family and lend a hand.  This is a huge and all-consuming endeavor.  It can’t totally be on the shoulders of seniors, which it is now, with few exceptions."

Our Lady’s Pantry serves everyone, said Bullaro. "Approximately 70% of our customers are migrant workers, 25% are seniors who can’t make ends meet, and 5% are women from Mary and Martha House who are trying to start a new life. We try to help them all as best we can."

Our Lady's Pantry welcomes volunteers, cash donations, and donations of unexpired, non-perishable food.  To offer assistance, stop by the classroom building in the far right-hand corner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Center on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings.

Tampa Tribune -- April 25, 2016
PHOTO: by Pam Varkony