Neil “Captain Hope” Snyder is counting down the days. The local attorney and chairman of the annual Marco Island Meals of Hope packaging event is gearing up for this year’s gathering, which will be held Saturday, November 16, at the Marco Island Charter Middle School gym from 9 to 11 AM. Last year, close to 600 volunteers participated and packed a total of 157,056 meals in just 90 minutes. The 2012 event also raised $30,000.
The brainchild of Rotarian Steve Popper, Meals of Hope is a Naples-based 501(c)3 that packages and distributes meals through a network of U.S.-based food banks called Feeding America. Although a great deal of the food is distributed throughout the five counties serviced by the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, Meals of Hope is responsible for feeding people from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina to Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.
Since its inception in 2007, Meals of Hope has packed almost 18.5 million meals. This year, it will package close to 4 million meals, and approximately 1.5 million of those will be distributed in Collier County. Every meal packed at the Marco Island event will serve those in need in Collier County.
To be sure, the need is greater than ever, especially with recent changes to the federal food stamp program — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. According to Popper, the Harry Chapin Food Bank distributed some 2.4 million pounds of food in Collier County alone. Even so, food bank officials believe the need in Collier County extends closer to 6 million pounds of food annually.
“If you take the approximately 100,000 people in need in Collier and just gave each of them one meal per week, that would be equivalent to Meals of Hope needing to distribute 5.2 million meals in Collier alone,” explains Popper.
The recovering economy and the developing status of the “working poor” has made the plight of Collier County’s food insecure population even more dire. “These are people who are making tough choices as to how to spend their money,” Popper adds. “Food, rent, medicine, utilities, etc. There is not enough to cover everything, and they have to choose what they pay for.”
As a result, a growing number of kids also are participating in the free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program through Collier County Public Schools. Currently, 61 percent of children enrolled in Collier County schools are part of the program, which equates to about 27,000 students. However, school officials believe the number is probably 10 percent, as middle and high school students are hesitant to sign up for the program.
With the holidays fast approaching, Popper notes the need is even greater but not for the reasons some may think. Much like during the 11 weeks of summer vacation, the two weeks of holiday break from school leave a lot of children who usually receive breakfast and lunch at school — and their parents — searching for food elsewhere.
“(The free and reduced-cost) program is not in place during school vacations,” Popper reminds. “When we were children, school vacations were a time of anticipation and fun. Today, there are too many kids who find vacation a time of anxiety. Where will they be able to receive food?”
Snyder and his “Hope Warriors” already have been busy with numerous fundraisers and After-Five get-togethers. The next will be held at Stan’s Idle Hour in Goodland on Sunday, Oct. 27, starting at noon. They also have lined up15 local business sponsors.
As always, Snyder is looking for at least 500 volunteers to show up ready to assemble the meals, which consist of items such as macaroni and cheese, beans and rice or soy chicken, rice and vegetables. All meals are fortified with soy protein and 21 vitamins and minerals. He has put the call out to the Sunrise Rotary Club, Noontime Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club, as well as schools, churches and organizations in and around Marco.
There is an added dimension this year as well. The Marco Island Meals of Hope event is supporting Collier County Public Schools Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program, which allows students to use their own Wi-Fi devices at area schools. Since not all children can afford such devices, local schools are accepting donations of gently-used cell phones and tablets to try to get a device in every child’s hands. As such, volunteer admission to this year’s Meals of Hope event will be $10 per adult plus a gently-used device.
Volunteers are encouraged to arrive by 8:30 AM the day of the event. More information is available at www.feedcollier.org.
Marco Island Meals of Hope 2013 Business Partners
• Barron Collier Companies • Carrier Air Conditioning Systems • CJ’s on the Bay • Coastal Breeze News • Condee Cooling and Electric • Gulf Coast Deli • Harbor Goldsmith • Interact Club of MIA • Kiwanis Club of Marco Island • Marco Island Brewery • Marco Island Charter Middle School • Marco Island Woman’s Club • Marco Movies • O’Donoghue’s Bar and Grill • Porky’s Marco Island • Rotary Club of Marco Island Noontime • Rotary Club of Marco Island Sunrise • Snook Inn • Stan’s Idle Hour
After-Five event entertainment provided by David Gardner and Rose Kraemer