The Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center runs a food pantry where eligible Gulfport residents over the age of 50 can pick out food, toiletries and pet food twice a month. About 20 people a week use the food pantry, which relies exclusively on items donated by the public.
“It goes pretty quickly,” Senior Center coordinator Joe Sutsko said last week of the supplies.
“It’s quite remarkable that we can feed the amount of people we feed on donations only,” said Senior Center Supervisor Rachel Cataldo.
The Center also serves as one of seven distribution centers in Pinellas County for the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to more than 100 Gulfport seniors Monday through Friday.
The food for the Meals on Wheels program is prepared and brought to the Gulfport Senior Center by the non-profit Neighborly Care Network. However, the meals must be delivered via private car by volunteers, who drop off about dozen meals along each of the seven routes serving Gulfport. Another 40 to 45 people eat in the Senior Center’s lunchroom.
In the summer, when many part-time Gulfport residents return to their homes up north, both the food pantry and the Meals on Wheels program suffer, say program coordinators. There are fewer people in town to donate food and fewer volunteers to deliver the meals.
“They’re great when they come down,” Sutsko said of Gulfport’s northern residents. “They’ll do two routes a day.” But when they leave, he says, “You have two routes open.”
There are also fewer people to help check on the safety of elderly shut-ins and interact with them socially.
“In a lot of cases the [Meals on Wheels] volunteer may be the only person they see or talk to on a daily basis,” Sutsko said.
Meanwhile, demand for both food programs continues to rise.
“The need is increasing,” Cataldo said. “It’s hard to say if it’s because of an increase in the number of seniors coming around or if it’s a financial thing. You have both factors playing in.”
The waiting list for Meals on Wheels in Pinellas County has 600 names, Sutsko said.
Among the food shelf users, the most popular items include breakfast foods and toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, toilet paper and soap. Laundry detergent is also in demand.
There is also a need for foods low in sugar and salt for those with diabetes and low-sodium dietary needs. Donations of pet food are also needed but can be especially spotty.
“When you become a senior and your pet is your only companion, it’s important to keep the pet around for that social aspect,” Cataldo said.
Food pantry volunteer Cedar Perrone says, “Sometimes they have pets they have a hard time taking care of because they don’t have enough food for them.”
Perrone has volunteered at the food pantry for about two years. Asked what strikes her most about the people who use its services, she says: “How appreciative they are.”
For more information, or to donate, contact the Gulfport Senior Center, at 727-893-1231. The center is located in Gulfport at 5501 27th Ave. S.