In has been a common sight lately: long lines of cars waiting for food donations from a local food pantry.
Workers running the distribution sites are almost exclusively unpaid volunteers who are recruited, organized and supervised to keep things running smoothly.
In the Florida Keys, two ladies responsible for managing volunteers at Star of the Sea Outreach Foundation—Lisa Niederman and Natalie Nites—are themselves volunteers, enrolled in the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
Lisa is a volunteer coordinator and healthy food access worker at the SOS Key West location. Natalie, director of Upper Keys Services, is centered in Key Largo. Aleceeya Thill recently arrived from AmeriCorps to help Lisa.
Volunteers in Service to America originated with President John F. Kennedy in 1965. It is now part of AmeriCorps, which was created in 1993 under President Bill Clinton. It can be likened to Peace Corps, but it places volunteers domestically.
Lisa and Natalie are among the 75,000 volunteers AmeriCorps places annually with public or nonprofit agencies that have education, health and safety, or environmental protection missions.
“VISTA connects people around the country with anti-poverty agencies that are doing great things in their community,” Lisa says, noting SOS is such an agency.
SOS grew from an outreach program at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Basilica in Key West. Originally able to serve only St. Mary’s parishioners, SOS—a 501(c)(3) foundation since 2009—is now the largest hunger relief agency in Monroe County.
“We distribute over 2 million pounds of food each year throughout the Keys,” Lisa says of the SOS foundation.
Currently, SOS has weekly food pantries in Key Largo, Islamorada, Stock Island and Key West, subject to change based on need.
Lisa has been with SOS for just under a year. She was job searching after graduating from Ithaca College when a friend told her about the Key West posting.
Lisa’s training and interests are in food sustainability and food justice, so joining a group involved with community hunger relief was a perfect fit.
Her regular duties include coordinating and scheduling volunteers who work the Key West pantry and SOS community kitchen, which caters meals for the senior center and kids in after-school programs.
She also coordinates nutritional programs at the Boys and Girls Club, the St. Mary’s Basilica School and the senior center. Tower gardens at both locations provide material for various demonstrations and fresh produce for meals.
“I’ve also been involved in event planning and fundraising efforts at SOS, like our annual fundraiser Casino Night when I coordinated our silent auction,” Lisa says. “I’ve organized special collection drives, and helped with events held at our community kitchen, including a free community cooking class. The VISTAs also mostly manage SOS social media.”
Natalie moved to Florida with roommates who were in other AmeriCorps programs. She has been here two years and says she may commit for a third.
Her degree from Denison is in biology. She plans to pursue graduate studies in marine conservation, so her location satisfies her passion for the sea.
“I worked at a dive shop when I first moved down here—pretty typical,” she says. “As much as I loved that, I wanted to work in the nonprofit field, so the VISTA program was perfect. SOS has been a great experience.”
Natalie works out of St. Justin the Martyr Catholic Church, which provides space for an SOS food pantry and other services. About a dozen dedicated parishioners sustain the program. She is thankful for their support.
“I wear many hats since I am up here by myself,” Natalie says. “I just got my first grant. When this (COVID-19) is over, hopefully I’ll start a community garden at the YMCA. I do volunteer coordination and oversee the food pantry to make sure of inventory.”
Natalie’s favorite duty is teaching nutrition lessons at the YMCA, Key Largo and Plantation schools and at Founders Park.
“I’ve always loved working with kids, but this program makes it even more enjoyable,” she says. “The students get to grow different foods using an aeroponic growing system called a tower garden and then make healthy snacks utilizing what we’ve grown. With each lesson, we not only discuss what foods are healthy/nutritious, but we talk about why. This program is awesome because it teaches the students something they can use throughout their entire life, which is not a part of the school curriculum. And they really enjoy the food.”
Tom Callahan, executive director of SOS, says the organization has taken part in AmeriCorps for at least 10 years. Emily Nixon, now SOS deputy director, started as an AmeriCorps volunteer.
“These are two of the best volunteers we have had,” Tom says of Lisa and Natalie. “They are passionate young people who really want to serve. They have responded to COVID-19 efforts without regard to their own health, and have been working way more hours than they signed on for—baptism by fire.”
Lisa knows the need. Due to food deserts, not everyone has access to fresh foods.
“A lot of poorer communities are disadvantaged because they’ll only have a bodega or a small convenience store with only a couple of produce options,” she says. “Richer neighborhoods have giant grocery stores with huge produce sections.”
But even in prosperous communities with choices, rampant unemployment from COVID-19 has left many more people without. This has brought both women to the front lines of mass food distribution.
Their pantries cannot operate as they normally would, with clients choosing their own goods as they would in a regular store. Too many need help, and safety of staff and patrons dictates different strategies.
SOS has adopted a drive-thru system to maintain social distancing for everyone’s protection. Pallets of fresh produce and dry or canned goods are dropped off at distribution sites. SOS refrigerator trucks bring in meat and dairy. In assembly line fashion, dozens of volunteers wearing masks prepare hundreds of bags for distribution. Once the area opens for cars, other volunteers fill open trunks with food. Clients stay in their vehicles. Every effort is made to maintain appropriate distancing.
Walk-ins and bicyclists are accommodated.
The process is orderly but labor intensive, and not easy under Florida’s hot sun.
Natalie and Lisa keep track of volunteers, assign shifts and duties, iron out differences and keep work stations organized.
“Please understand your own comfort level and try not to overcommit yourself to more shifts than you’re able,” Lisa tells her Key West crew. “I know it’s hot and each shift is demanding, so be guided by your own limits. We want everyone to stay safe and healthy.”
At the end of April, Key West/Stock Island SOS was serving 700 to 850 families per weekly drive-thru. The Upper Keys was processing about 650 families at locations in Key Largo and Islamorada.
“I have seen so many people come together to figure out how they can help,” Natalie says. “It feels like collaboration is taking place on a wide scale, and everyone in Monroe County is trying to be sure we are all taken care of.”
Despite the hard work, “I feel very lucky to be part of SOS and to be helping the community,” Lisa says. “We’re also really grateful for the outpouring of support: Florida Keys Strong.”
For information about AmeriCorps, visit https://nationalservice.gov.