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ORLANDO | Within one year’s time — from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023 — Catholic Charities reached a milestone measured by one can, fruit, vegetable and other food items at a time.

In that time, seven food pantries across central Florida, together, served more than half a million meals to those in need. While those numbers were surpassed during the pandemic, they are significant non the less. And while it’s good to know those statistics, numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“I’ve always said in my ministry we work from the inside out. If people leave home the same way they return, we did something wrong,” said Juan Vega, director of food ministries for Catholic Charities of Central Florida. “People come
to us miserable and upset. They don’t want to be in this line. They are worrying about their problems, how they will afford their bills. Then a volunteer will greet them with a smile and take time to talk. We try to educate people about the food they are getting. This is more than just giving out food. We see the individuals. There are many places to go to get food, but people come to us because of the way we are doing it.”

People are coming to Catholic Charities more than ever. With inflation, and rising housing and utility costs, people have to make difficult decisions about where to spend their money. Food shortages and struggling farms are driving prices up at the grocery stores. Just a month into the new fiscal year, Deacon Gary Tester, president of Catholic Charities, foresees this year will be just as busy as the last.

“Economists say inflation is going down, but our numbers are going up in food and emergency family services. Folks have held on as long as they can, but it’s catching up and things are taking a toll,” Tester said. “As the year has started off, the demand is still very high. It’s hard for me to believe that it will get a lot better because people are struggling economically. There is a lot of hardship they are facing.” He notes many seniors struggle to determine where to spend their money – on prescriptions or food? “It’s hard to make those decisions,” he said.

Catholic Charities is working hard to meet the increasing need. In partnership with Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Candler and Second Harvest Food Bank, they will begin operating their first food pantry in Marion County this August, beginning with a mobile food drop Aug. 5. In addition to the daily operations of pantries across the diocese, Vega and his team are also keeping a close eye on the weather. As a coordinator of emergency operations and disaster relief, he works closely with government agencies to deploy necessary food, water and supplies to affected areas both before and after a storm hits.

“Last year we sent 400,000 pounds of supplies out to Venice. We were able to supply different areas along the coast with MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) right before the storm. Those first few hours are crucial,” said Vega, who added that those meals aren’t even included in the half million meals served locally.

Vega said the agency is proud to serve neighbors in need, but Catholic Charities can’t do it alone. For seven, and soon to be eight, food pantries, there are only five paid employees. Everything else is done by a team of dedicated volunteers. He depends on the generosity of the community for everything from food donations to bags to pack meals in and monetary donations to help purchase food from Second Harvest and keep up with the maintenance and diesel needed for the delivery trucks. It’s a big operation, and a crucial one for individuals and families facing food insecurity.

“They are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. If we have it, we give it. We’re all in this together. Everyone is welcome here,” said Vega, issuing an open invitation to anyone who wants to join their mission. “We need the support of the community, so come down and spend time with us! If you find it in your heart to give a donation, that’s welcome too. If all you can do is pray, we appreciate your prayers.”

Where and How to Volunteer

Catholic Charities of Central Florida, visit cflcc.org /volunteer or contact volunteers@cflcc.org or 407-658-1818, ext. 1026 for event dates and needs.

  • Agape Mission Market, Catholic Charities of Central Florida, 1771 N. Semoran Blvd., Orlando. Food distribution volunteers needed Mondays- Wednesdays-Thursdays-Fridays, 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
  • Kissimmee Agape Mission Market, Holy Redeemer Parish, 1603 N. Thacker Ave. -Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9-11 a.m., 4-6 p.m.
  •  Winter Haven Agape Mission Market, St. Joseph Parish, 532 Ave. M, NW, Monday-Friday, 9-11 a.m.
  • Rosemont Mission Market, 4300 Clarcona Ocoee Road, Orlando. Open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m.
  • Lake Wales Agape Mission Market, Holy Spirit Parish, 644 S. 9th St., Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9-11 a.m., and 1-3 p.m. First and third Fridays, 5-7 p.m.
  • Lakeland Agape Mission Market, St. Joseph Parish, 210 W. Lemon St., Tuesdays, 9-11 a.m.