LUTZ — The Rev. Ron Alexander, pastor of Baxterville Baptist Church in Lumberton, Miss., stirred gallons of chili in the mid-afternoon heat on Monday.
Large portable fans blew as he and more than two dozen others worked under a tent, preparing hot meals for those without homes, water, food or resources because of Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile red-and-white vehicles lined the grounds of Idlewild Baptist Church, waiting to take those meals across west central Florida.
They had already made one trip throughout Hillsborough, Polk, Highlands and other counties. This was to be a second one for the day as it had been since the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief team and the Red Cross began the joint operation last weekend.
Each day, about 14,000 meals are prepared and delivered from the church site. Both groups had volunteers who had left their own families to do so - as they often do.
"I just felt the call to come," Rev. Alexander said. "I usually serve locally."
But, he added, the church had an associate pastor who could take over while he was on the 10-day trip to Tampa.
"So they gave me the Sunday off and here I am," the pastor said as he continued stirring.
The Tampa "pop-up" operation, with members from churches in Mississippi, is one of seven sites across Florida operated with the Baptist organization and the Red Cross, said Red Cross Regional Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Pipa in a presentation Monday.
"They throw up the tent; we provide the food; they cook it; and we deliver it," Pipa said. "This huge partnership allows us to do what we do; we don't need to cook."
The Tampa site is serving central Florida counties with other sites providing food in various regions of the state.
"One in South Florida even gets a police escort every day to get to the (Florida) Keys with meals," Pipa said.
On Monday afternoon, the 26-member Tampa cooking team was preparing chili, rice, vegetable, fruit, pudding cup and water for dinner. Lunch had been chicken and dumplings, peas and corn, fruit and water. There is always water with the meal.
Gene Johnson, who has volunteered in the relief effort since 2009, oversees the cooking tent. He likes the camaraderie of the group, that they are helping those who have lost everything "and I know good food; this is good food. It gives them optimism."
The Red Cross has relationships with food distribution companies and places (and pays for) orders for standard disaster requirements provisions. The volunteers take it off the trucks; tear off labels and sanitize the cans, which are opened by a pneumatic can opener.
The food is cooked in three 35- and 40-gallon tilt skillets or four convection ovens. It is delivered in cambros (a type of chest resembling an ice chest.) The cambros are sterilized each time they return to the site.
A pot-washing area has an on-demand water heater; and Dumpsters are on site and emptied often. The operation has a "safe-serve certificate," Johnson said.
Johnson praised the cooperation the relief team got from the mega-church at 18333 Exciting Idlewild Blvd.
"They feed us breakfast, give us a place to stay and let us take over their parking lot."
While the team is cooking Red Cross volunteers like Linda and Ken Rieger of Riverside, Calif., line up in the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) to deliver the food to shelters and communities in need.
On Monday, the couple, who were part of 2,500 deployed volunteers in Florida, had returned from a lunch run to a shelter in St. John's Methodist Church in Winter Haven with 55 meals.
They were picking up dinner for the same group.
"They were happy; it was their first hot meal in a number of days," Linda Rieger said.
In addition to the ERVs, a box truck was taking 5,000 dinners to Marion County - after having delivered 5,000 lunches.
Many of the volunteers are retirees like Wayne Herrington, another leader of the Southern Baptist group. It is their way of giving back.
"I love to be part of this - to help where people are in need," Herrington said.
"The Bible tells us to give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name; that is what we are doing."
Contact Lenora Lake at [email protected]