Meals on Wheels for Kids of Tampa Bay embarks on nationwide mission

While some of us may have grown up as “Latchkey” kids preparing our own soup, PB & J sandwiches, and heating up frozen dinners, it’s a far cry from what too many kids go through passing the entire day without even a halfway-decent meal. 

According to Voices for Florida, early 55 percent of Florida's 4 million children are living in or near poverty, or in households that are one missed paycheck or lost job away from not being able to meet basic needs. With 20% of Florida children living in poverty, Florida ranks in the bottom 15 states (35th in the nation), the nonprofit says.

Enter The Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger. The tri-county nonprofit focused on hunger relief, research, and program development delivers Meals On Wheels for Kids Tampa Bay (MOW4Kids) in Brandon, Progress Village, Palm River, Riverview in Hillsborough County; in Tarpon Springs, East Lake, Odessa, and Palm Harbor in Pinellas County.

MOW4Kids of Tampa Bay delivers lunchtime meals to children who depend on school meals and are at home when school is out of session or learning remotely. 

Thanks to the efforts of MOW4Kids volunteers and their intrepid boss, Caitlyn Peacock, the program that began here in Tampa Bay is going nationwide. The busy mom and civic leader juggles proposals, her kids’ homework, and shuttling the little ones to and fro. 

“A lot of our work focused on community organizing data analysis,” Peacock explains. “So we would do a supply and demand analysis of hunger at the ZIP code level every 12 to 18 months,” adding that she got “sick and tired” of the under-utilization of federal food access programs due to an inability of parents to drive or seeing moms go hungry while watching their kids eat food at a local program center. 

“I will always be a strong advocate for the summer food service program because it certainly does fill a huge gap, but how can we reach these other kids that just can't access these sites? Peacock asks rhetorically. “The eligibility is the congregate aspect, right? They have to go to the library, they have to go to the park, go to the school, go do that. And so back in December of 2019, I got with my programs person to figure out a solution.”

Peacock zeroed in how to get a balance of shelf-stable and produce to families in their homes. She has also prepared training guides to help Meals on Wheels kids programs across the country to start their own programs.

“We started a national expansion initiative to help other communities outside of our tri-county area,” Peacock said. “So we provide and help lead the direct service. We recruit the volunteers and just handle all aspects of the direct service program. ...So, we got all the paperwork and proper trademark and did all the kind of hoopla that you really need to protect the integrity of the program -- like a franchise but really mission-driven. And so our first state Georgia, Meals on Wheels for Kids-Atlanta, launches Wednesday.”

Volunteers are still needed each week locally to help pack boxes of food for MOW4Kids. For people interested in delivering meals, the TBNEH website has a user-friendly portal that allows you to choose which route you’d like to take. There’s also info about Meals on Wheels sites that need help packing boxes. 

Level 2 background checks are needed (state and national fingerprint check, and consideration of disqualifying offenses). Deliveries take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays starting at 10 a.m. 

Volunteers must drive their own vehicles to deliver boxes of food and cold meal packs to children and families. Routes take about 60 minutes to complete. 

“Volunteers don’t just help us do our job,” Peacock says. “They're the ones that run the program. As a result of their visits, children experience an increase in overall nutrition, food security, and feelings of social connectedness. Fortunately for us, we've had almost a thousand volunteers over the last year help deliver meals. And we're only a staff of 20 to 25, so you could see, right, that volunteers allow us to help these families and these kids.“

For more information, call (813) 344-5837. To sign up to volunteer, visit Network to End Hunger.
The Network is also currently accepting donations to help support the MOW4Kids program. A donation of just $20 will provide a week of Meals On Wheels for Kids deliveries to children in need.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.