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Local food pantries need a boost. How can you help?

Christina Gibbs said the shelves of Winter Springs High School’s food pantry are more sparse than they’ve been in years.

Gibbs, a WSHS administrative secretary who oversees the school’s food pantry, called the “Bear Market,” said more families than ever are picking up the free meal bags they offer, which are filled with food items families can prepare at home.

She’s also going through the snack items she offers to students throughout the day more quickly. More than 100 snacks are disappearing from her cart daily, leading her to believe that more students are in need.

More than 1,100 students attending Seminole County public schools have already been identified as homeless this year, according to the school system. Last year, there were 1,400 identified in the entire year. More than 32,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is 49 percent of the district. An example of a qualifying household income is $49,025 for a family of four.

“It’s an increase from the past because of the rent moratoriums,” said Seminole County Public Schools board member Tina Calderone, referencing the United States Supreme Court’s summer ruling to end eviction bans that were in effect during the pandemic.

When asked about the need in Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs, Calderone said, “The need is all over. Jackson Heights’ [Middle School] cupboards are bare. Stenstrom’s [Elementary] pantry is low… We have a lot of affluent families and a lot of homeless in Seminole County. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Local schools with the highest percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch include Winter Springs Elementary with 76%, Highlands Elementary with 58%, Tuskawilla Middle with 55%, Winter Springs High School with 52%, Indian Trails Middle with 46%, Geneva Elementary with 42% and Stenstrom Elementary with 41%.

The community steps up

Hope Helps Inc., an organization based in Oviedo that aims to prevent and reduce homelessness in Central Florida, serves about 150 households per week, with clients primarily from Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs.

Hope Helps President and CEO Joan Faulkner said the community typically gives generously during the holidays and the organization coordinates food drives throughout the year to keep their shelves stocked.

Gibbs said WSHS is fortunate to partner with Second Harvest Food Bank, which provides 200 boxes of snack foods monthly. The community also pitches in, donating food as well as household and hygiene items for the pantry each Friday at a special drop-off event.

Oviedo High School Registrar Angela Williford said they’ve had so many community donations over the past few months that their pantry is “overflowing”. She said they might need donations again once the holidays are over.

“We live and work in one of the best, most generous communities in Central Florida,” she said.

Gibbs said WSHS is collecting Thanksgiving meal items for 21 families at the school this year, and they’ve had a healthy amount of donations but still need more. She expects to collect for about the same amount of families this Christmas, and the school will offer a generous amount of food for students to take home with them over break, but Gibbs worries how that will affect their pantry heading into 2022.

“We are definitely going to need donations in January,” she said.

Ways to give

Hope Helps, Inc

  • Find lists for needed food, hygiene and household items as well as information about providing monetary gifts and volunteering here.

Winter Springs High School Bear Market

  • Accepts community donations at the school’s front office, located at 130 Tuskawilla Road in Winter Springs, daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Current needs:
Canned vegetables
Boxed mashed potatoes
Boxed dressing mix
Green beans
Cream of mushroom soup
Fried onions
Jars of gravy
Large cans of sweet potatoes
Canned fruit
Canned cranberries/sauce

The deadline to donate for WSHS’s Thanksgiving collection is Nov. 15 and the deadline for their Christmas collection is Dec. 13.

Seminole County Public Schools’ Giving Tree program

  • Gift suggestions

Elementary Students
Arts/crafts, action figures, Barbie dolls, bikes, bike helmets, board games, cars/trucks, dolls, Legos, LOL Dolls, remote control cars, Paw Patrol toys, princess toys, princess items and clothing, Pokémon items, scooters, skateboards, sport items, superhero stuff

Middle and High School Students
Accessories, arts and crafts, bath products, bikes, board games, cologne/perfume, earbuds, hair accessories, hair tools, headphones, make-up, scooters, skateboards, sports equipment, watches

Amazon, Target and Walmart gift cards are accepted for any age group. For monetary donations, please make checks payable to The Foundation of SCPS.

*Cannot accept nerf guns, toy weapons and used toys

Gift Cards (Amazon, Target, Walmart) and monetary donations are accepted

Donations will be accepted until Monday, Dec. 6 to the SCPS’s ESC lobby at 400 E. Lake Mary Blvd. in Sanford, FL 32773. Donation boxes are available to any business that would like to offer one to the community. Contact for more information.

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