PLANT CITY It’s been a long time since Sylvia Dodson experienced hunger pangs.
But the memory of missed meals and meager portions lingers with the longtime Plant City resident.
Dodson was 9 years old when she fled Cuba with her parents and brother in 1960, following Fidel Castro’s communist takeover of the island country.
“We left everything behind in Cuba and arrived in Miami as political refugees with nothing,” recalled Dodson. “We faced some very difficult circumstances and, yes, there were times we wondered where our next meal was coming from.”
However, Dodson never went hungry for long.
“We were very fortunate to have organizations in our community to assist us,” she said. “They were instrumental in helping us get back on our feet, and I’ll always be grateful.”
Today, Dodson returns the kindness her family was shown by serving on the board of directors for the United Food Bank of Plant City.
“I understand the challenges many families are facing during these hard economic times,” she said. “It takes a lot of strength and perseverance to overcome these difficulties.”
Formed in 1999, the nonprofit food bank receives no government subsidies.
“We’re totally dependent on donations from the community,” Dodson said.
And, with the number of needy residents on the rise in eastern Hillsborough County, three years ago Dodson was charged with finding a way to increase donations.
“We learned about the Empty Bowls Project from America’s Second Harvest of Tampa Bay, which has been doing it for over 20 years,” said Dodson. “We looked into it and decided to do a similar event in Plant City.”
Now in its third year, the United Food Bank’s Empty Bowls event will take place from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the old Plant City train depot, 102 N. Palmer St.
“All of the funds raised from the event go to the food bank,” said Dodson, noting that last year’s event was attended by 400 people and raised $6,000. “These are funds that are crucial as we head into the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season.”
Christine Miller, executive director of the food bank, said the need is more critical than ever.
“Our needs have grown tremendously. By August of this year, we served more families than we served in all of 2012,” she said. “So far this year, we’ve distributed food to over 4,000 families.”
And upcoming cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the state’s food stamp program, will inevitably lead to more demands for the food bank’s services, Miller said.
The cuts, which took effect Nov. 1, will decrease SNAP benefits for a family of four by $36 a month at a time when use of food stamps in Florida is at an all-time high, according to the Florida Association of Food Banks.
“Essentially, what’s happened is we’re not seeing economic recovery at this level,” Miller said. “The needs are continuing to grow in the Plant City area. This year we’ve already distributed over 400,000 pounds of groceries. In all of last year we distributed 374,000 pounds.”
On average, the food bank, which is open four hours a day, five days a week, serves 30 to 40 families a day, Miller said.
“We’re set up to serve a family facing emergency needs three times a calendar year,” she said. “But if someone comes in hungry, we’ll meet the need.”
The families Miller sees at the food bank comes from all socio-economic backgrounds.
“Over 25 percent of the people we see have never used a food pantry before,” she said. “I just had a family come in from a fairly affluent neighborhood in the community. They’d never used a food pantry before but were facing financial problems due to lost jobs and a number of other issues. Just because someone drives a nice car and lives in a nice house doesn’t mean they’re secure. You can live in a house for a long time before it’s foreclosed.”
In light of the growing need, Miller said she’s grateful to have volunteers such as Dodson.
“She is a wonderful person and so passionate about serving the community,” Miller said. “Without people like her, we wouldn’t be able to function.”
Dodson says serving the food bank is a labor of love and she’s especially excited to chair this year’s Empty Bowls event.
“This is an event that brings together the entire community from our businesses to our schools,” Dodson said.
Each year, Dodson’s committee invite children from 21 area schools, as well as homeschooled students and church youth groups, to create pottery bowls for the event.
On Saturday, residents who purchase a ticket for $10 will receive a keepsake handmade bowl in which they will be served a humble meal of soup, along with an apple, bread and water.
“The empty bowls are a reminder of all of the empty stomachs we need to feed in our community,” Dodson said.
While residents enjoy their lunch, clowns will entertain the crowd with magic tricks and balloon animals. Attendees also will enjoy the music of the Next Radical Generation youth group of Plant City and the Ace Jackson Trio.
In addition, there will be an opportunity to purchase bowls created by professional artists from the community and $1 drawing tickets for a pottery fountain created by a North Carolina artist.
Dodson said she hopes to sell 1,000 tickets this year.
“For just a $10 donation, residents can make a real difference in their community,” she said.
For information, go to www.ufbpc.biz/ or call (813) 764-0625