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Thursday, December 1, 2022

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Feeding hearts, minds and bodies

The front door hasn’t even closed yet and three sets of feet can be heard running my direction. There is no calm, Mr. Rogers-esque moment of shoe removal before the tidal wave of questions and stories (mostly about food) erupt from the Spence boys. After the first few moments of mayhem, things settle down a bit. Most nights, we eat dinner together and talk. Stories revolve around recess and lunch, and occasionally we can even get an academic highlight thrown in with enough prompting. It is easy to get them going. Eventually, the spotlight turns in my direction. 

“What did you do today?” 

Usually it is the youngest, Nolan, who asks. Through the years, I have answered with a comment about a nonprofit I visited, a person I talked with, or a project I learned about or helped to grow. But to seven, nine and 12-year-old boys, those moments do not really resonate. It is tough to share the process of building social services responses to community issues without getting into the weeds or beyond the point that connected with their daily lives. Most times, my response did not really impact young, energetic, blessed and thankfully carefree boys. 

I have spent my professional career in ministry, education and philanthropy – contributing to interesting projects and helping people help others. I have enjoyed every step, but something has been missing. There was always a sense of value and purpose in my answer to Nolan, but it was pretty tough for kids in elementary school to relate. Eighteen months ago, I joined the team at Feeding Tampa Bay, and the conversation changed.

“Dad, what did you do today?”

“I fed people.”

“Today we opened a school pantry that will help feed hundreds of families. They will now get to eat their favorite meals around their family table, just like us.” 

Now that, the boys understand. They can picture me going off to work, making sure that children very much like them had family meals. They know how important that time, and that experience, has always been to me. That is a good way for me to spend my day. 

At Feeding Tampa Bay, there is no confusion about what we do or why we exist. We feed people. There is no hesitation when you ask any one of our nearly 100 employees what we do each day. We feed people. And now I’m proud to give that answer every single day when Nolan asks.

The numbers are staggering, almost too big to comprehend. 

Nearly 650,000 food insecure people live in Tampa Bay, with over 65 million pounds of food shared with the community. We have over 500 partner agencies across 10 counties supporting the hungry and needy in our midst. Our 80,000-square-foot warehouse is busting at the seams and our 24-truck fleet could be on the road delivering food 24 hours each day. Our army of over 45,000 volunteers and 200 corporate partners stand shoulder to shoulder fighting hunger in Tampa Bay, and yet we are only halfway there. 

115 million meals a month: that’s what it will take to end hunger in Tampa Bay. That’s how many meals we need to provide to ensure that every food insecure individual across West Central Florida has access to the food they need to live a productive, healthy life. 

So what do I do at Feeding Tampa Bay? I feed people. What do our volunteers do when they come to our warehouse and sort donated food into banana boxes so we can send them out to churches, social service agencies and other community partners? They feed people. What do our truck drivers, forklift operators, volunteer coordinators, inventory managers, fiscal specialists and administrative assistants do when they come to work in the morning? They feed people.

And best of all, what does Nolan do when he joins daddy at work on a Saturday morning distributing produce at Trinity Cafe 2? He feeds people too. 

Because no one should go hungry.

It is a simple tag line, but it means everything to the team at Feeding Tampa Bay. We take this as our marching order, our guiding principle reminding us of what matters most in our interactions and program decisions. We know, with clarity and at depth, what is important. 

Why did we merge with Trinity Cafe – a free restaurant with two locations that serves anyone who walks through the door without precondition or prejudice? Because no one should go hungry. Why have we started to build pantries in schools and health care facilities? Because no one should go hungry. Why are we providing career training for individuals with barriers to employment? Because no one should go hungry.

Our organization has put a stake in the ground. We want to end hunger in Tampa Bay by 2025. Achieving that goal will not be easy. It will require more food, more friends and more funding. It will require a broad community commitment to the work. We firmly believe we can, and will, do it.

How will we get 115 million meals into the community by 2025? We will need to evolve our methods and partners to make food available at the right times, in the right places for those who need us. We will have to energize our community by providing access to high quality, nutritious food across the entire region. We will have to engage anyone willing to stand beside us, building a social movement committed to the mission. And we will need to empower the neighbors we serve to access resources and embrace opportunities in order to move out of a food line forever. 

We are building programs that engage children in solving social challenges. We are inviting families into our work through Family Nights at the warehouse. We are always ready for another set of helping hands – no matter how small. 

So join my family – Matt, Erin, MJ, Luke and Nolan – in the fight to end hunger in Tampa Bay.
What do we do? We feed people. Why? Because no one should go hungry. 

Matt Spence is Chief Programs Officer at Feeding Tampa Bay – working everyday toward a hunger-free Tampa Bay by building solutions at the intersection of hunger, health and poverty. He is a two-time graduate of Florida State University with a master’s degree in Education Policy and a bachelor’s in political science. He also holds a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from the University of Texas and has completed the Icehouse Social Enterprise training program. Spence serves on the board of the Social Enterprise Alliance –Tampa Bay chapter and Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay chapter, is a Leadership Pinellas graduate and volunteers with the YMCA of the Suncoast, Florida Celtic Soccer Club, Clearwater Little League and St. Cecelia Church and School. He grew up in the Tampa Bay area and resides in Pinellas County with his wife Erin, (an educator) and their three sons.

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