WESLEY CHAPEL — Wednesday mornings, the parking lot of Atonement Lutheran Church fills up early.
The quiet crowd that gathers outside the church is mixed. There are young mothers with toddlers in strollers. There are retirees and Spanish-speaking immigrants.
They're all waiting for food.
Atonement sits east of Interstate 75 on State Road 54, in the heart of one of Tampa's many white-collar suburbs. It's about three miles as the crow flies to New Tampa, one of the region's wealthiest areas.
Atonement opened a weekly food bank more than five years ago to address the poverty that swept through bedroom communities like this one in the wake of the Great Recession. Job losses and home foreclosures left thousands of families looking for help.
Today, about 5 percent of Wesley Chapel's 33,000 residents depend on federal food stamps to feed their families — a small number by comparison with other regions, but one that's 25 times higher than it was during the run-up to the 2008 housing crash. Back then, the rate was just two-tenths of a percent, according to figures released last week by the Census Bureau.
The growth in food stamp use mirrors the growth in poverty in the suburbs, said Elizabeth Kneebone, who studies poverty at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
According to a Brookings study released this summer, food stamp use in the suburbs has doubled nationwide. The majority of food stamp recipients now live in the suburbs, not the cities.
An analysis by the Tribune of the new data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows:
* The rate of food stamp use grew the most in white-collar bedroom communities around Tampa's edges.
* The sharpest increases were in the Pasco County and Pinellas County communities where populations grew fastest during the housing boom.
* Pinellas County beach towns also show major growth in the rate of food stamp use.
“Just as poverty grew faster in Tampa's suburbs than in the region's central cities, we've also seen the pace of growth in suburban SNAP receipt outstrip city increases,” Kneebone said. “By 2012, 70 percent of the region's poor residents lived outside the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater — up from 62 percent at the start of the 2000s.”
Despite reports of falling unemployment and rising economic indicators, Carla Haberland knows that the slow-motion recovery isn't lifting everyone evenly.
Haberland runs Atonement's weekly food bank, which relies on donations from food warehouses like Feeding America Tampa Bay as well as food drives by local schools and civic groups.
When it opened five years ago, the food bank served about 125 families regularly. Double that number were waiting for food shortly after opening at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Most weeks, the food bank serves about 300 customers.
“What I'm finding is more new people,” she said as she arranged Christmas gifts visitors could chose from for their children. “We're seeing people we haven't in a while because their food stamps got cut.”
A five-year expansion of food stamp benefits expired at the end of November. Extended unemployment benefits will expire at the end of this month. Haberland worries she'll see even more people standing outside her pantry's doors.
“They're coming from a lot of the subdivisions,” she said, referring to the sprawling developments that have grown up over the last decade or so.
Kay Edwards, decked out as Mrs. Claus on Wednesday, helps register families who come to Atonement for help with food stamps and other programs through the Department of Children and Families. Most day's she's the church's office manager.
“The first lady I worked with came in and she was crying,” Edwards said. “She said 'I have too much pride.' I said 'pride doesn't feed your children.'”
Edwards moved to Zephyrhills from Michigan with her husband, Dwayne, a decade ago. The two have been married 50 years.
“We've been in the same boat all these people are,” Kay Edwards said. “We raised five daughters. There were times we didn't know how we were going to feed them. There was no help back then.”
While Kay talked, Dwayne, dressed as Santa, entertained 1-year-old Joshua Candelora.
“It's tough for people to ask for help,” said Joshua's mother, Nicole Candelora. “I'm unemployed. I've been looking for work. It's hard in Wesley Chapel. There's not as many jobs as you'd think.”
Bedroom communities like Wesley Chapel, FishHawk in eastern Hillsborough County, and Feather Sound, on the fringe of St. Petersburg, report high rates of overall employment, but few were working where they live.
That's changing in Wesley Chapel as medical offices cluster around a newly opened branch of Florida Hospital. Financial services giant Raymond James has said it plans to open a office complex in the next few years.
Meantime, most of the jobs based in Wesley Chapel serve the commuters who call it home.
Candelora said her husband works as a landscaper for “a little bit above minimum wage,” she said.
The family's food stamp benefits were cut last month from $360 a month to $270. The food pantry helps make ends meet. After Wednesday, Atonement will be closed for two weeks because of the holidays.
“It's trying at times,” Candelora said. “The last week of the month is usually the hardest one. But you manage. You have to, otherwise you curl up and fret about it.”