All Faiths Food Bank fighting rural hunger, meeting crucial need

Through its Food and Resource Center, All Faiths serves as the epicenter for critical social services to lift residents out of poverty

In Sarasota County – with its beautiful beaches, luxury homes, high-end shopping, and glittering galas – it can be easy to overlook the struggles of those who may be less fortunate. But head east from downtown Sarasota for about an hour, to DeSoto County, and those struggles become crystal clear. 

Paradoxically, in rural areas that grow most of our nation’s food, households face considerably deeper struggles with hunger than those in metropolitan areas. In DeSoto County, where agriculture is the dominant industry, the number of persons living in poverty is nearly 22% (the national average is 13.1%). With a population of just over 38,000 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), household income is just over $35,400 and, in 29% of households, a language other than English is spoken at home. 

Rural areas differ significantly from urban areas: they’re not as concentrated so social services may not be centralized in an easy-to-reach location. Finding job opportunities is more difficult – few new jobs are being created and most employment is relegated to low-wage industries. Many rural communities still haven’t recovered from the recession of a decade ago. Work support services such as flexible and affordable childcare and public transpiration are not as readily available, and too many residents lack access to high-speed internet. With a lack of opportunity or needed supports, residents are forced into poverty.

The above points are all true in DeSoto County, where the needs are significant. And while All Faiths Food Bank worked to address hunger in DeSoto County for 17 years, the organization saw a greater need in the area than it could match with existing resources. 

A 2017 community assessment funded by Gulf Coast Community Foundation summarized existing services and resources in DeSoto County and identified needs and gaps in services. The assessment found that available services were severely constrained and that there was a lack of cohesion across programs and agencies. 

Funded by six visionary donors and initiated as a pilot program in May 2019, the All Faiths Food Bank Food and Resource Center was created as a hub providing services as well as building partnerships with other programs. In the fall of 2019, All Faiths celebrated the official opening of the new DeSoto Food and Resource Center (1021 E Oak Street, Arcadia).

The Food and Resource Center is one of the few such locations in the nation and an innovative model for the Feeding America network. Here, not only is All Faiths addressing hunger but focusing on the root causes of hunger, which is essential to lifting families and communities out of poverty.

The facility is designed to be the epicenter for needed resources with wrap-around services including: needs assessments; benefit assistance for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps), Medicaid, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Social Security and Disability; legal aid; group classes on topics including tobacco cessation, breastfeeding and more, and referrals for other social services. This year, Food Bank staff and volunteers coordinated through United Way Suncoast will offer free tax preparation as well.

By getting to the underlying issues causing hunger and ensuring community members are receiving the benefits that are available to them, All Faiths is strengthening family stability, lifting people out of poverty, and offering prospects for a healthier, better future.

Since its opening, the FRC has far surpassed expectations, serving more than 7,534 unduplicated clients of whom 41% had never been served by All Faiths before. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic situation for many in DeSoto County: All Faiths has seen a 49% increase at its mobile distributions, leading to hundreds of new families benefiting from nutritious food since last March. 

“What distinguishes the Food and Resource Center is that we are beginning to address the underlying issues that contribute to hunger,” said Sandra Frank, CEO of All Faiths Food Bank. “By helping people receive benefits, providing tax assistance, and serving as the hub for referrals, we offer solutions that can help raise families out of poverty and end hunger. We are incredibly grateful for our donors' commitment to ending hunger and improving lives in DeSoto County.  

Outreach is a big factor in the success of the Food and Resource Center. All Faiths gets the word out about available services through outreach workers, door hangers, personalized postcard mailing efforts, a local ad in the free Shopper, and social media. Team members have noted that having a brick and mortar presence has created more credibility and built greater trust among community members. Additionally, the FRC has ensured that its staff mirrors the demographics of the area: two staff members are fluent in Spanish and one team member speaks Creole in order to lower barriers and ensure effective communication with those in need.

All Faiths Food Bank is the only food bank and largest hunger relief organization in Sarasota and DeSoto counties. Rated 4-stars by Charity Navigator and a member of Feeding America, we provide millions of meals each year through robust programs and partnerships with charitable organizations in the community. In addition to food distribution, All Faiths Food Bank operates a roster of innovative direct service programs that not only solve the immediate problem of hunger but strive to end hunger by helping families and individuals gain long-term food security, better health outcomes and self-sufficiency. For more information visit allfaithsfoodbank.org