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In the year of the unprecedented, so is this.
It is no longer a council chamber for government meetings and votes. Where there were chairs, there are crates. Where there were staff tables, there are boxes heavy with a week’s worth of food. Where there were grievances waiting to be spilled, there are mounds of canned and jarred goods. Where there were residents in fidgety attendance, there are volunteers and staffers in fevered–no, we shouldn’t say that: in eager, ceaseless action (and in masks and gloves), building boxes, filling boxes, sealing and moving boxes, the product of the largest food-aid effort Palm Coast government has taken on in its 20-year history as it seeks to alleviate some of the economic hardships residents are facing as a consequence of the coronavirus emergency.
A decade ago Milissa Holland was at the origin of what was then known as Feed Flagler, the annual effort to prepare 2,000 Thanksgiving meals and packs of groceries for residents in need around the holiday. Holland took that idea, multiplied it on an exponential scale–an unspoken counterpunch to an exponentially promiscuous virus–and, in a joint effort between the city and Parkview Church, will provide a week’s worth of groceries to 5,000 families on May 2.
“The irony is,” Holland said, “Feed Flagler, we wanted the community to come together for a Thanksgiving meal, to come out and enjoy their locations. This is the opposite: we’re asking people to recognize the social distancing and stay at home as much as possible, so it would have to be a very different strategy.”
The drop will be scheduled simultaneously from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at City Hall (160 Lake Avenue) and at Parkview Church (5435 Belle Terre Parkway), with live music, Halloween-bunches of candy for children, elaborately engineered traffic patterns with a focus on speedy delivery and zero contact between volunteers and families in their cars, and on top of it all, 5,000 free masks–delivered in packs of five to each carload–donated by AdventHealth Palm Coast.
“This is definitely not traditional or conventional,” City Manager Matt Morton said, “but I think it’s essential. It’s absolutely essential, what we’re doing.”
The city’s council chambers are no longer in use as such: all council meetings and workshops, like all other local government meetings, are taking place virtually, through applications like Zoom. But just as governments have been reassigned staffers to different jobs in hopes of preserving their job, Palm Coast has reassigned spaces, too. City Hall is closed, physically, most of its operations having gone virtual (a large segment of employees in public works, utilities and even at City Hall continue to work as they always have). But in some ways it’s never been as open as it is these days, with doors normally locked propped open and constant if reduced flow of people going through rooms and corridors.
Since mid-April, city staffers and volunteers have turned the city council’s meeting chambers in the Community Wing into a big staging area where donated and purchased food is stocked up, parceled out in an assembly line of 12-by-16 boxes containing canned protein, boxed juices, peanut butter, jelly jars, canned fruit, canned vegetables, pastas, pasta sauces. Once the boxes are sealed and stacked 6 feet high on a crate, they’re moved out and stored in the main hallways on the first floor of the city’s administrative offices and in the public customer service area, which is now one big storage room for food packs. City Hall’s first floor is a warehouse of generosity.
“It’s quite an operation,” says Lisa Asbill, a customer service supervisor who’s been putting in time with Feed Palm Coast.
As of today, the city has raised $57,000 for the food drive, with a goal of $75,000, according to Tyler Jarnagin, the city’s spokesman. (On April 22 the city had announced raising over $18,000 in the first two days of the drive, when its goal was $30,000.) Staffers and directors have been making food runs to Walmart and Winn-Dixie, using either public works vehicles or their own–and making sure “not to clear out the shelves,” Jarnagin said, being conscious of public anxiety about food shortages.
The city is expecting two big trucks of food delivered by Second Harvest, the food bank, $4,000 of which paid for through the city’s fund-raising, $5,000 of it donated by Pastor Charles Silano, a guru of local food banks who runs Grace Community Food Pantry, which itself distributes food to upward of 1,200 people every weekend. Home Depot, Walmart and Winn Dixie have donated empty boxes.
“What hasn’t changed in all the years since I originally participated” in Feed Flagler, Holland said, “is our community never ceases to amaze me as far as their generosity, their commitment to help others, their neighbors get through extraordinarily challenging times. This is just another example of how they do that.”
Today, about a dozen volunteers and a few city staffers were busy in the council chambers, among them Amanda Borelli, a customer service representative. “Every day it’s a little more,” Borelli said. “On a typical day, it’s 10 to 15, but there’s a team of us who’ve been here the full two weeks.”
A similar operation is going on at Parkview Church. The city is hoping to have 3,000 boxes of food ready by May 2. It had 1,200 packed as of this morning. Parkview is expected to have 2,000 boxes. On the day of the drop, the sheriff’s office will provide traffic control at both places, with up to 50 volunteers at each site. Silano and Pastor Greg Peters have been instrumental in guiding the city as “subject matter experts on what types of non-perishable foods are helpful,” Holland said, “what families are in need of, what they look for, and what could go a long ways as far as the amount of people they’re feeding.”
The city is fully aware of course that this is a one-time, big-scale food drop. The emergency is not going away. Even as communities reopen, the resumption of economic activity is expected to be more tentative. Job losses are already nearing Great Depression proportions. In the absence of a vaccine for the coronavirus, the economy may not return to normalcy for many months or longer, making relief efforts necessary in the future. Holland said that will happen, though right now the focus is on the May 2 operation, which was itself devised rapidly.
“We’re never going to have enough food frankly in our community to feed the need that we have currently,” Holland said. “We wanted those going through challenging times to know they weren’t alone, their neighbors were going to step up and help their neighbors. It’s two-fold, one it gives that symbolism to know they’re not alone, but secondary to that, it allows us to mobilize a tremendous amount of effort into offsetting the weekly feeding distribution sites that are currently going on.”
“It created a movement that allowed us to get $57,000 in eight days,” Jarnagin said.
There will be plans for further operations. “We haven’t solved that yet but we have had those exact conversations,” Morton said. “We all acknowledge that in any emergency, whether it’s a hurricane or somewhere where the Red Cross is dispatched, generally what happens is you get this front-loaded, very heavy outpouring, very heavy response. Then as time goes on, the need really settles in. People have expended those efforts, or they feel like they’ve contributed, they’ve done their part and it’s time to move on. So, yes, we’ve had those discussions on how and when it would be appropriate, who we partner with. Is it the city again? Do we just help with the resource allocation and raising resources to let the other groups continue to do this?” The plan is not yet developed, “but very much a recognition that will be needed. Another phase will be needed. Absolutely.”
You can contribute to the relief effort here.
Merrill S Shapiro says
Makes me–and should make us all–proud to be “Palm Coasters!”
Keep Safe says
I applaud Mayor Holland’s Leadership and Reliance on Science ,Data and Facts, not Public Opinion to guide her Decisions. I believe that her actions have helped to keep Palm Coast relatively safe in the face of this epidemic despite the actions of Flagler County.
Mike Wehde says
Just as an addition, there will be as many as 8 other churches partnering with the Mayor, including our own Food Pantry team and staff at Lifecoast Church. It’s quite a partnership between area churches and the city.
Michael Cocchiola says
This is a good thing we’re doing. This is the real America.
I still wish they would’ve done a pet food drop too. They need food just as much as people do right now.
Margie Simmons says
Big shout out to VERDEGO! They raised over $32,000 by donating 100% of their sales proceeds from last week! Way to go VERDEGO!