Today’s episode is a special one! This local nonprofit does a lot for our local community to help those in need. Tamara Black is the Executive Director for Feast Food Pantry which is a local food bank that provides food and personal care items to those in need in Northern Pinellas County. They are located right here in Palm Harbor, FL. With the impact of COVID-19, they have expanded their service area to include anyone who needs food and personal care items. It’s amazing how many families they help out and how quickly they adapted to the impact to the pandemic. This is a great way to get involved in your community so I hope you enjoy listening to Tamara and please share with anyone who might need to hear this. Make it a great day!
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Tamara Black | Feast Food Pantry
In this episode, we sit down with Tamara Black, the Executive Director of FEAST Food Pantry, a local food bank right here in Palm Harbor. They’re doing some great things to help the families in need, especially with the year we had with everything that’s been affected by COVID 19. Let’s jump right into it. I’m excited to sit down with Tamara and learn more about what FEAST Food Pantry is doing for the local community.
Tamara, I appreciate you joining us and spending some time with us to share a little bit more about what FEAST Food Pantry is all about and how you guys got started and what you do. I want to start there. For those people who don’t know about FEAST Food Pantry, tell us what it is and what you do.
First off, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. We’ve been around in Palm Harbor for over 30 years. We’re located on Nebraska Avenue. Our mission is to provide food and personal care items to families in need in North Pinellas County. Families can come to us up to twice a month. We provide food to them and it’s based on their family size.
For example, if you have four people in your family, you get a certain amount of food. That includes perishable items, milk and meat and non-perishable items like pasta, cereal and things like that. We’ve seen a huge in numbers since the pandemic began. We’re here to help our community. That’s what we do.
Everyone has a time in their life when they need help whether it’s on this level or a different level. We all need someone to help us. Tell us a little bit about your role here at a FEAST Food Pantry. You’ve been here for quite a while. What is your role in keeping things going?
I’ve been the Executive Director, as you mentioned. I’m overseeing the entire operation. We have an operations coordinator. They help run the system in terms of what we need to buy, the food we need to get donated. We have a volunteer coordinator as well who helps to schedule the volunteers. To run an operation like this, we need a lot of volunteers. We have 45 to 50 volunteers who make this happen.
I oversee all that. We have the FEAST Family, honestly because we all work together. We had a volunteer appreciation. We all came out. We had some speakers. We had some clients come because we all work to try to help people in our community that are in need. People need help sometimes. I’m here to try to help these people that need help.
If somebody wants to volunteer, how do they get involved? How does that work?
They can go to our website. We have a link that they can contact us. We have to be cautious because of COVID that we are maintaining social distance. We have a waitlist of volunteers because we have so many great people in this community that want to help us. If anyone’s interested, we would love for them to contact us because things change. Some people, after the holiday, are going to take a break. We have a lot of snowbirds that come and go. We’d love to have help if anybody needs it.
If somebody is in need of some food or household items, how does that process work for you?
Everyone has a time in their life when they need help.
All they need to do is come here with an ID. That’s it. We have a service area. We’re allowing anybody to come, regardless of if you’re in our service area or not because we know that people need help. Before the pandemic, we had people coming into the building. They check in and get the food. We have a contact list delivery system.
People come here and they show their IDs. We have people outside who ask about their family size. We even cater to, “What bread do you like? We have chocolate cupcakes or vanilla. What kind do you want?” We try to make it a good experience for the people because a lot of times people are coming to us and they’re ashamed that they have to be here. They don’t want to be here.
Our speaker that I mentioned was saying, “I love coming here to see you all but I hate having to come here. I’m embarrassed that I have to come here.” What we try to do is reassure our clients, “Don’t be embarrassed. We’re here to help. Please come if you need us. You might need us for a couple of months or a couple of years. Who knows? Please come.” They can come up to twice a month. We’re open Monday nights from 4:30 to 6:30 and Tuesday through Friday, we’re open from 9:00 to 12:00. They come in, show their ID and we deliver the food to their car. It’s very simple.
There was a view on the website speaking to what you were saying about being embarrassed to come here and stuff. It was from a lady who had donated food and things to you guys for several years. Something happened in her life and she ended up needing to come here to help feed her family. She had a large family of kids. It was a moment in her life when she needed some help. That’s important, don’t be ashamed of coming here. We all need help sometimes.
Our volunteers do a fabulous job in that respect, from answering the phones to the people outside of reassuring, “We’re all the same. If you need help, come on up and we’ll give you whatever you need.” That’s why we try to make it, “You have kids in the car. Do you guys want some juice boxes?” Whatever we think the client might need to help them feel better about the situation. We try to do that for them.
Getting back to what you asked about my role here, the other part I play is fundraising to get grants. We see so many people. As of the pandemic, we’ve seen 2,700 people a month. Before that, we saw about 1,000. Imagine that jump for us. It’s been insane. My job is to reach out to local churches and civic groups to solicit donations. We have a lot of people who did food drives for us over the holidays. A lot of realtors did some food drives. That’s another thing we do. We were fortunate to get some money from the Pinellas CARES Act. That’s another way that we were able to purchase food for our client. With that demand, we need to have food in the stock
that’s a lot of families. Originally it was North Pinellas County but because of the pandemic, you’ve expanded to anybody who can make it here.
We predominantly are still seeing most people from our service area, maybe extending a little bit into the Clearwater area. For the most part, it’s still our service area but we’re seeing an onslaught of new people that have never visited a food pantry. Those are the ones that are having the challenge of coming here. We try to reassure them that that’s why we’re here. That’s our job. That’s what we’re here to do.
If you don’t have time to volunteer but you want to donate whether it’s food or money, how could someone go about that?
You can donate. We have PayPal. People can donate or send checks. Our website is www.FEASTFoodPantry.com. You can go to PayPal and donate. We have the address there. People can call us and ask us. Our needs change. During the holidays, people thought, “You probably need stuffing,” but we were getting a ton of stuff. We needed peanut butter. Who would’ve thought that in December, it’s peanut butter that we need? People can reach out to us, call us or visit the website. They can send us an email if they want to get involved and help. They could volunteer. They can send in donations. They can also spread the word. We know that there are a lot of families who don’t even know that we’re here, who need our services.
Some schools have a food distribution center on some of their sites. We made up some little flyers so that people knew, “You’re getting food here but you can also come to us for help too.” People can get the word out if they know a neighbor, a friend or someone at their church that they think is fallen on hard times. Please tell them that we’re here to help.
That’s a good point because I didn’t know you were here or know anything about FEAST Food Pantry, except for a local farm food pickup that picked up at this location. Once that happened, I started doing some research and learned a little more about what you guys do and stuff. Spreading the word would be super helpful. What have been some challenges that you’ve experienced because of COVID or challenges in general that you typically have to have to handle?
It’s crazy for everyone. We had a change in leadership. We had a bunch of new volunteers. A lot of our volunteers before were elderly. Once the pandemic hit, they were not comfortable coming here. We had to train a whole new base of volunteers. What we decided was we are going to utilize this time. Here’s what we’re going to do.
If you would’ve come in here a few months ago, there was carpet on the floor. There was so much work we needed to do but we are feeding people. That’s the primary goal. Some of those aesthetics fell by the wayside. We decided, “If everybody’s outside, let’s take this opportunity to get the beautiful new floor.”
We had latitude flooring. It’s from a local Palm Harbor company. They donated a lot of the flooring. They installed it. We revamped our organization to get us a little more efficient in what we do and make it easier. We aesthetically updated it. We trained a whole new volunteer base. We organize the way we run things, our operations end of it.
We had so many more clients. We were paper, pencil, old school. We decided, “Let’s go to a client database, an online type of thing. If someone pulls up, they come in and show their ID and we have a volunteer outside who goes in, clicks on their name and can see, “Here’s where they live. They have four people in their family.”
He has a relationship with them and gets to know them. They pull up. He’s like, “Hey, Mary.” It’s incredible. We implemented that. We implemented a donor database as well. We got Instagram. It was very exciting for the kids. We made a lot of changes in 2020 and meanwhile, feeding so many people. Our mission is to serve people here. We want people to be able to come. We want to sustain for 30 more years. We want to serve even more people.
If that number does increase for whatever reason, do you want to handle it?
Yes. We want to be ready for it.
There are people who you may personally know, and still don’t know that they have a need.
2020 was about that, shifting gears to expand and grow for the next coming years. What is your background? Where did you come from before being here?
I was a pharmaceutical rep in a former life. I’m on the YMCA board, the Greater Palm Harbor Y and the Suncoast Y. That’s how I got involved with here. I was serving on the board and started doing some events and some things and segued into this role. It’s been great because I enjoy being out in the community, talking about the FEAST, what we do and the impact that we’re making. It’s been a pleasure to do this. We are all volunteers. All we have is one part-time paid employee. Everybody else, including myself is a volunteer.
There are 40 or 50 people volunteering their time. What is the average time that someone volunteers? What is the average shift like?
Most people who volunteer come in around 8:30. They end up leaving about 12:00. Most of them work 1 or 2 days a week. The guy outside that I mentioned is here every single solitary day. We have other people doing that as well who come 3 to 4 days a week. It is what fits your schedule and what works best for you.
It’s been nice because we have the nighttime. We are catering to families who may have had a challenge getting here during the day because they are working but they still need assistance. That’s also allowed us to get different volunteers working to get high school kids who need bright futures hours. We are able to do that. In the summertime, have them come as well to help us. They have been a great addition to us.
Since you have only been here for a while, this might be a challenging question to answer. What is something that you wish you would have known when you got started?
I wish I would have realized all that goes into this and done a better job initially of putting people in places where they need to be. We have refined it. We have an operations and volunteer coordinator. Initially, this is a business. It runs like any other business. They are getting food but you are still paying the bills. You have to do these forms and these official documents. We have the right people in place to do the right things. Looking back, I wish I maybe would’ve done that a little sooner.
Our busiest time of the year is the holidays. People want to give and people need help. Once November hit, we were greatly slammed with donations and people asking how they could help or host a food drive. We were trying to create new flyers and update and enhance what we are doing. Everybody laughs at me because I have a list right here. My list keeps growing, all the things that I want. “Let’s do this and let’s do that,” to update some things that we are doing and make sure that we are around to serve people for the next years onwards.
It’s crazy that this has been in place for that long already so it’s pretty neat making a difference in the community. That’s huge.
We have some volunteers who have been here for many years. They are part of this family. They are here because they love what we do. They have been a great source of information, ideas and suggestions. It’s been great to be involved in it.
You went through a bunch of changes. What do you have planned? Are there anything new, exciting and different things planned?
We are looking at that list. One of the things we probably need to do is update some of our visuals. For example, did you see our van outside? We got that wrapped. You could see what that is but we would like to get a billboard. You drive down Nebraska probably all the time and you don’t even know that we are here. Where you have a little thing on the marquee, we’d get a nice big sign out there that you can see as you drive by some things like that, just trying to enhance.
We want to get a trailer that we can attach to our van. We have so many great people in our community that come up and they hand us money, checks or food. We are very fortunate. They understand our mission and want to help the community as we do. There are so many different ways people are helping that maybe are not even on our property.
If somebody wants to help, what advice would you give them? What are some things that you are in need of at this time?
We are always in need of food. We have some items that are always in need. Those are canned soup, cereal, dry pasta and peanut butter. Canned fruit is one because kids like that. It’s expensive so a lot of times, people can’t buy that. We need canned meat, canned vegetables and things like that. We have two donation boxes that someone donated to us, nice new ones. We don’t even have to be open. People can come and put their donations there. We check that every day to make sure.
Do you have a drop-off location out there?
Yes. There are two big, bright orange boxes now to make people aware that’s a way they can help. If they wanted to volunteer, they could contact us at Volunteer@FEASTFoodPantry.com and send us their information. They can visit the website and go to PayPal if they’d like to make a monetary donation. If anyone has a specific skillset that they are good at, we would love to know that. We try to put people in a place where they are going to be happy and where they excel and flourish.
If you are involved in the FEAST Food Pantry, you are here to do good for the community. You want it to be enjoyable too. If somebody is looking to get involved in your position or maybe start a food drive or something of their own, how would you recommend they go about doing something like that?
The food drive is their own. For example, we had a local realtor who said, “I want to give back. I have known about you guys for years. What can I do?” We sent her that flyer. She took the ball and ran with it. She made her own fancy flyer. I was like, “That is beautiful.” She reached out to her contacts in her sphere of influence and said, “I need help. Can you help me?”
Everyone has to work to try to help the people in their community who are in need.
People want to help people they like. They helped her. She came in and went, “I’m going to be in on Tuesday at 10:00.” I’m like, “Okay. Great.” There were truckloads, four different cars worth of food. We needed it so badly at that point. It was emotional. She had some friends come with her. They were very touched by the whole thing. That day, there was a line of cars outside. There are probably fourteen spaces out there.
Of people picking up?
Yes, of clients. There was a line. They were impacted by what they saw and the need. It was very emotional for everyone. If people want to do that, it’s that simple. We have had high school kids who contact their friends, “I’m doing a food drive.” It’s easy for someone to go to Publix or wherever and grab a couple of things, pass them along and give them to us. We will utilize them for sure.
One thing my brokerage does is meet men and they do a food drive or toy drive. Every single year, we go around. It’s very similar to that. That’s helping people in the community in the Tampa Bay area and surrounding areas. This is a little bit more local, probably some of your neighbors and stuff if you’re looking to help some families in need.
That’s something when we go out and speak to groups. We talk to some middle school groups some high school groups and we try to let people know. A lot of times people think, “There’s not a need in North Pinellas County. There is no one I would ever see.”
You would not normally think that.
There are people you may know but you don’t see that they have a need. Every Christmas, we had an event with Palm Harbor United Methodist Church. They founded us. They had a small pantry that’s grown into this. We have a great collaboration with them. They’re always helping us, providing food and money. We do an event over Christmas with them.
Years ago, one of my kids, who was in middle school at the time, was working the event. He saw two of his classmates coming in for food for their families. He finally understood you’re not joking when you say it could be anyone. It’s the kid sitting next to you in History. Nobody knows who has needs. We always try to educate people that these are our neighbors and our friends and we need to help them.
It’s increased because of COVID this year. Twenty-seven hundred people every single month are coming by here to get some help.
It ranges from small, new families with young kids to senior citizens. We had someone out there who was 94. It runs the gamut because everybody needs help at a different point in their life.
You are doing some fantastic things here and it’s great to see you grow and hopefully, that continues. In the next 30 years, you will still be here. Tamara, I appreciate the time. For people to get ahold of you, you mentioned it already but to the website, it’s probably the best option, email donates, all that stuff on there.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to let people know that we’re here if you would like to volunteer, have a food drive or donate money. We are also here if you need us. If you need food, please don’t be embarrassed to come here. We are here to help you. It’s a fun place. Everybody is fun. The volunteers have a good time. Come on by.
Come on by and say hi. Thank you.
I am thankful that I sat down with Tamara to learn more about FEAST Food Pantry because I didn’t know that there was a need like that here in Northern Pinellas County and the surrounding areas. I’m grateful to learn more about FEAST Food Pantry and how you can help. It was super cool that someone came right in the middle of our interview. It was not planned. I promise to see that to donate some money to FEAST Food Pantry. You can drop stuff off at any time. If you’re interested in donating, you can visit their website, check them out. They’re on social media as well.
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