Paco Velez, at center with the white shirt, is CEO of Feeding South Florida, a food bank serving several counties.

Paco Velez, at center with the white shirt, is CEO of Feeding South Florida, a food bank serving several counties. (Photo/courtesy of Feeding South Florida )

Near affluent and glitzy Miami, almost a million risk going to bed hungry

For many, South Florida conjures images of tans, fun vacations and glitzy glamour.  Yet many might be surprised to hear that despite the wealth so visibly on display in places like Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties, there are almost a million people in the area who do not know where they will get their next meal.

“One story comes to mind,” says Sari Vatske, Vice President of Programs and Initiatives for Feeding South Florida.  “We know a mother of three, and a teacher, who lost her husband, as well as her mother, who took care of the children. She went from a two-income household to a one-income teacher salary, and even two or three jobs wasn’t enough,” Vatske recalls.  “She ended up having to send one child to live with an aunt, since the shelter has a two-child limit,” Vatske explains.

Just like this working widow’s children have depended on Feeding South Florida for a meal, the organization says 24.4 percent – almost a quarter – of children in South Florida are food insecure.  Almost 300,000 children in the Palm Beach and Miami area go to bed hungry, according to the group’s analysis.  In fact, Florida ranks 6th in childhood food insecurity – 28.4 percent of its children are in this category, according to the latest Feeding America figures, to be released on Monday.

The issue for almost 30 percent of the families who are food insecure in the Sunshine State is that their income, while still low, does not allow them to qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps).  “The cut-off is $30,000 for a family of four,” explains Vatske.  “Once a family makes $30,500, they cannot access SNAP.  As more people fall through the cracks, we are working harder and harder,” Vatske says.

Paco Velez, CEO of Feeding South Florida, says Florida is the second biggest agricultural state – so the issue for his food bank is not a lack of food.  “For us, the biggest factor is logistics,” he explains. “Sometimes people think we need more food, but what we could really use is another 50-foot trailer-truck, since we are dealing with time-sensitive food products that have to be transported in a day or two,” he says.  “The issue for us is our limited resources to rescue as much food as is necessary,” Velez explains.

Velez is a soft-spoken but passionate Texan whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico.  Before working in Florida, he managed a food bank in his home state. Texas has the 7 top majority Hispanic counties with the highest food insecurity rates, followed by counties in Arizona, California, New Mexico and New York.

Despite the daunting logistics and the increasing amount of families who depend on food banks in Florida and across the country, Velez cannot imagine doing anything else.

“My calling has always been in service,” says Velez.  He says he is glad he can use his knowledge of Spanish and his cultural background to connect with some of the families, many who have come  from different parts of the country as well as Latin America.

“When folks go to a food pantry, you see that their spirits are broken.  It’s embarrassing for them, though it shouldn’t be,” Velez states.  “Times are rough for a lot of folks, but when you can share something in common, it makes things a little easier.”

This report was produced as part of a collaboration between InPlainSight.nbcnews.com,  TheGrio.com, NBCLatino.com, msnbc.com, and NBC’s owned television stations. 

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