Just next door to one of Florida's richest counties is a place where hunger and poverty grow worse every year. In DeSoto County, the state’s second-poorest county, aid workers say things have never been this hard. Jobs are increasingly scarce, cuts to food stamps are leaving more people hungry, and a high school has started operating a food pantry for homeless students.
Diane Campbell, a volunteer at a local homelessness nonprofit, is the first person many Arcadia residents meet when they seek help food and shelter. But she also depends on charitable food banks to get by.
"My income is a little bit, but without this food bank I don’t know what I would do, because I wouldn’t have enough food to go from week to week," she says. "Even though I get $63 worth of food stamps every month, that is not enough. You can’t even go into the store with $63 and hardly get anything.”
After losing her nursing job a few years ago, she has struggled to stretch shrinking federal food stamps from one month to another. Complications from diabetes and other health problems have made it hard for her to get back to work. Recently, , she stood in line next to the same people she has helped, waiting for a turkey dinner provided by the All Faiths Food Bank.
The nonprofit distributes food across Sarasota and DeSoto counties, and All Faith’s executive director, Sandra Frank, spends much of her day trying to draw the attention of a wealthy community to a poor one.
"Totally distinct, radically different populations and needs, Sarasota versus DeSoto," says Frank. "And I don’t think our community here, here in Sarasota, understands the level of need, the level of poverty, and the level of food insecurity that is happening with our neighbors to the east.”
Unemployment in DeSoto has hovered near 10 percent since 2008, and the number of people on food stamps has tripled in the last decade. This rural area has long relied on public agencies to provide stable jobs, but those have been fewer and fewer in recent years. In 2002, the county lost one of its biggest employers when a large, state-run mental health facility closed. The largest private employer now is Walmart.
About 31 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, and few major employers remain here. About a third of DeSoto County’s jobs are in government. So Campbell, the volunteer, isn’t unusual. Hundreds line up at food banks in Arcadia every month.
“Vegetables, meat, bread. What people need on an everyday basis for life," she says. "And a lot of people can’t afford this, because they don’t have the income. And I’m one of them.”
The local school district counted 376 homeless students last year, including at least 70 at a small high school. The high school operates a food pantry for these students, who spend their nights sleeping in cars or bouncing from one friend’s home to the next. The food pantry added 20 more students to its lists of clients this year. At another school, a majority of the students qualify for subsidized or free lunch programs, an indicator of widespread food insecurity.
The All Faiths Food Bank stocks the shelves at the high school food pantry and the DeSoto County Homeless Coalition where Campbell volunteers.
“And this, without this," she says, "a lot of people just would not be able to make it from week to week.”
If DeSoto County continues to decline, more help will be needed. Today, the food bank is active mostly in Arcadia, but Frank hears stories of increasing desperation in pockets of the county far from town. She says the food bank may have to expand its operations there, and that will mean gathering even more food.
“And I think it’s sort of out of sight, out of mind, or we never even think about it. But there are pockets of extreme poverty in DeSoto County," Frank says. "There are pockets of extreme food insecurity that we need to take be taking care of, that we need to be concerned about.”
The All Faiths Food Bank delivers as much as 14,000 pounds of food every month, and is always seeking donations to keep pace with the growing need. The food bank collects donations in neighboring Sarasota County year-round, but All Faiths executives say they believe many in this more affluent area are unaware of the level of hunger in DeSoto County.