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More than 1 million pounds of food collected through Feed the Bay

Feed the Bay organizers dreamed of hitting their number this time: 1 million pounds of canned goods, dry goods and toiletries collected for 14 food banks since the effort began seven years ago. It was a long shot. To hit that number, volunteer shoppers from 38 area churches would have to purchase and donate 162,000 pounds of food. They didn't – they exceeded their goal by 19,000 pounds, collecting 181,000 pounds of food. "We are just thrilled," said Cindy Perkins, one of the major organizers for the effort.
And organizers still haven't counted up the gift cards purchased at various stores or finished picking up food from stores that left bins out after the initial collection. Perkins attributes the large haul to the addition of Nativity Catholic Church and five other churches this year, along with advance publicity. On March 24 and 25, church members and others shopping at local grocery stores filled carts with rice, beans, cereal, toiletries, spaghetti sauce and canned meats. The supplies will help food banks serve the growing number of families that might otherwise go hungry. Feed the Bay's roster of participating churches has steadily grown over the years. It all started in 2005 after Bay Life Church's pastor, the Rev. Mark Saunders, returned from a trip to Texas with a big idea. Congregation members at a church he visited there left their pews after the service and headed for the grocery store to restock a local food bank. "He came back and said 'Let's do something different on Sunday. Today, no church. We're going to be the church,'" said Perkins, Bay Life's connections director. "We had a couple of trucks and wound up really seriously stocking the shelves for ECHO." The Emergency Care Help Organization, a Brandon nonprofit organization that helps families in distress, has come to depend on this annual food drive, as have 13 other area pantries. The effort was a good opportunity for the congregation, too, allowing members to become "the hands and feet of Jesus," Perkins said. "We loved it," from the beginning, Perkins said. "The next year, we had a couple of other churches that wanted to be a part of what we were doing. God really began to birth in us that vision of … making a bigger difference in our community." It has only grown from there. On the weekend of the event, volunteers hustled to hand out shopping lists, sort food and load it into trucks bound for food pantries in various corners of Hillsborough County. "It's not just food," Perkins said. "It's caring for people and being part of something bigger. Larger churches can come alongside the smaller churches that don't always have the manpower to pull something off of this magnitude." Denominations are set aside, replaced by gumption and sweat equity. "I just like helping the homeless and the hungry," said 13-year-old Jaden Garrett of Rivers of Life Church in Brandon, as he passed out grocery lists in front of the Publix on Kingsway Road. "People want to help." Inside Publix and Sweetbay stores across the area, shoppers filled baskets with ramen noodles, toothbrushes, oatmeal and raviolis, then hauled their purchases outside and handed them over to Feed the Bay volunteers. People like Michelle "Flip" Filipowicz worked with each group to ensure there were enough people to hand out lists, sort food and load it into the trucks. "This truck is going straight to Liberty Baptist Church in Plant City, where they have a small food pantry," she said, standing near the truck outside the Sweetbay on State Road 60 in Valrico. "People have been pretty responsive," Filipowicz said. Most already knew about the effort and were happy to take a shopping list. Dee Fridella, the Feed the Bay site coordinator at the Apollo Beach Publix, had volunteers from three churches helping her. "We counted about 120 boxes of food that went directly to our Lord's Lighthouse Mission in Ruskin," Fridella said. "There was so much food, I honestly don't know where they are going to put it all." For volunteer Annette DeZutter, a Bay Life member, the mission was personal. "My son was homeless for three years," DeZutter said. "If I can help feed someone … I wanted to get involved." After the first couple of years of shopping and donating, Bay Life members found themselves with another mission: providing ushers and greeters and child care at Bell Shoals Baptist Church, a megachurch in Valrico that had lost its minister and his son in a plane crash. "We all came together to help them out," Perkins said. Out of that came talks of doing something bigger, and Feed the Bay took a more serious turn. "A dozen or so churches got together and said 'Let's do this.' That year, there were 22 churches," Perkins said. This year, there were 38 – from Brandon, Ruskin, Plant City, Temple Terrace and elsewhere. "It's been an amazing thing," Perkins said. "There are nine denominations involved. For that to happen is almost unheard of in most any capacity." The churches range in size from a few hundred members to a few thousand. Publix and Sweetbay have become the primary sponsors for shopping and loading, but others are also getting involved. The Walgreen on Kingsway Road has set up bins and so have several Advanced Auto Parts stores. The Walmart in Valrico has inquired about getting involved next year, Perkins said. "Our motto is 'Together, We can Do More,' when we put away our denominational differences," Perkins said. "We just want to make a difference. Let people know God loves them."

yhammett@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7127

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