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Florida pantry designates special hours for seniors

                                A woman selects a cucumber with the help of a volunteer at the Publix Community Market food pantry as part of Senior Wellness Shopping Day in Tampa, Fla.


    A woman selects a cucumber with the help of a volunteer at the Publix Community Market food pantry as part of Senior Wellness Shopping Day in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. >> Cynthia Jones has her grocery shopping down to a science.

She divvies up her list between the shops of Palm River Road in Tampa, forgoing spices and frozen fruits at Save A Lot in favor of Dollar Tree’s much cheaper prices. From there, she marches on to Fresco y Mas.

Store by store she gathers what she needs to ensure she and her 91-year-old father, whom she cares for in their home just outside Ybor, can stay healthy, fed and full while staying afloat.

But these days she’s had to make compromises.

“I make my money stretch as long as I can, but there’s some things we have to do without, because prices are just astronomically high — like fruits and vegetables,” said Jones, who is 70. “The healthy stuff that they know people need, that’s what went up.”

As housing, transportation and grocery prices skyrocket in Tampa Bay, older adults living on fixed incomes must foot increasingly high bills with finances that largely remain unchanged.

Organizations like Feeding Tampa Bay, an area food bank, attempt to help fill the widening gap.

In May the nonprofit launched a series of Senior Wellness Shopping Days to increase access for the area’s older adults to free, nutritious food.

The initiative sets aside special hours for people 65 and older to shop at the organization’s community market, which offers fresh produce and other food staples, and free health screenings at an on-site BayCare clinic.

“Food security is directly related to health,” said Thomas Mantz, president and chief executive officer of Feeding Tampa Bay. “All we’ve done is combine the two here to say, ‘Let’s make sure that they’re co-equally accessible.’”

The food pantry plans to offer senior days biweekly through July.

“I think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” Jones said. “Because nobody looks out for the seniors.”

Feeding Tampa Bay will reassess need based on turnout at these events and schedule future dates accordingly, Mantz said.

“We’re prioritizing this population because, when costs of living rise, their budget does not,” he said. “We wanted to create some specific times, dates and locations so we could start to build, kind of like grocery store hours, a way in which we would be an ongoing reliable opportunity for food for seniors.”

All 60 slots were booked at the inaugural senior shopping day back in May, as a steady stream of older adults arrived to access essential groceries.

“Most of the time, it’s crowded (during regular food pantry hours), so this was lovely,” said Linda Goolsby, 68, after stocking her cart with zucchini, fish and tomatoes. “It’s the first time I’ve had anyone to help me — a volunteer helped me get stuff down and load it into my car.”

“I’m going to share the food that I got today — a lot of my neighbors are older, they cannot get around,” said Goolsby.

That’s how people take care of each other where she lives, in Tampa’s South Nebraska community, she said. “God gave it to me, so why not share?”

Older adults can shop at the pantry once a month, by appointment only.

“It makes a tremendous difference,” Jones said. “Because now I’m able to eat things I need, as well as like. If the good Lord spares my life and the creek doesn’t rise, I will be here every month that I can make it.”

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