GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — The 100-foot walk to the family's SUV was challenging for a Golden Gate Estates mother. She released her 3-year-old son's hand to maneuver a bulging, unwieldy box of food they had just received.
"I don't get paid for another two weeks," said Megan Newman, as her 8-year-old son, Aaron, struggled to hold a second, overfilled container.
On Thursday, the family headed away from Harry Chapin Food Bank's mobile pantry outside Estates Elementary School, where Aaron attends. They had fresh tomatoes and potatoes, cabbage and bell peppers, meat, and bread in hand.
"It helps out a lot," said Newman, who lives with her family of five and works a minimum-wage job as a cook at Ave Maria University.
Harry Chapin is a clearinghouse for food donations, from major supermarkets to canned food drives. With nonperishable items stacked to the ceiling and thousands of pounds of produce local farms couldn't sell, its 48,000-square-foot Fort Myers warehouse is the hub for a five-county distribution area.
In 2011, the food bank provided 13.5 million pounds of food to 150 partner agencies, including Catholic Charities of Collier County, Grace Place and Naples-area churches, among others, where underemployed, down-on-their-luck, or otherwise struggling people can pick up free food and worry about bills other than groceries.
Three years ago, however, Harry Chapin began more direct outreach with a mobile food pantry.
Staff gets the word out about a location and then sets up, with the help of volunteers, two trucks to hand food directly to families in need. The setup allows the food bank to target the most vulnerable communities or age groups.
In 2011, a grant from the Naples Children & Education Foundation allowed Harry Chapin to expand its mobile pantry into Collier County, creating a twice-weekly moveable feast at 13 public schools with high rates of students on state-subsidized lunches, in some places nearing 100 percent.
There was trepidation after low turnout at the first Estates Elementary mobile pantry. The second time around, school workers were encouraged to pick up food, two fourth-grade teachers volunteered, the principal manned the registration table, and more families turned out.
On Thursday, Newman was among 901 people — 44 percent of whom were children — to receive part of the 10,300 pounds of food given out during the two-hour event.
"It's much needed out here," said Francine Eufemia, principal of Estates Elementary, where 77 percent of the students are part of the state-funded lunch program. Moreover, she noted, for some Estates residents the nearest grocery store is a 20- to 30-minute drive.
"With gas prices the way they are, for them to be able to come down the street is incredible," Eufemia said.
Mobile pantry recipients save on gas, but Harry Chapin spends about $11,000 monthly to fuel trucks that shuttle food to and from the warehouse to distribution sites.
To the chagrin of its executive director, Al Brislain, food donations from Collier go to the warehouse in Fort Myers first, only to sometimes be hauled to partner organizations back in the Naples area. While the agency maintains an administrative office in North Naples, there isn't anywhere to store food. Brislain admits the system isn't efficient.
"We're not doing as good a job as we can in Collier County," he said.
There is talk, however, of a partnership with North Naples-based Meals of Hope, a nonprofit that produces ready-to-cook, fortified meals.
Brislain confirmed a collaboration is possible but the food bank's board of directors hasn't yet decided.
Meals of Hope is small compared with Harry Chapin's 40-some staffers. Run only by founder Steve Popper and supported by tens of thousands of volunteer hours annually, it has no bricks-and-mortar presence and holds events in community and church spaces.
But Collier property appraiser records show the organization in March bought a $500,000, 15,000-square-foot warehouse on Corporation Boulevard in North Naples.
Popper confirmed the purchase and said Meals of Hope would move in the next few months, but declined to elaborate on Chapin's role, saying only that the two organizations "have a very close relationship," adding, "Our goal is to continue that relationship."
The food bank's work in Collier has expanded, from distributing 548,000 pounds of food in 2008 to more than 2 million pounds in 2011.
In the year since March 2011, when the NCEF grant kicked in, a million pounds of food was distributed through the school program — 100,000 more pounds than the average mobile pantry program, according to national food bank organization Feeding America.
The school mobile pantry events are held Tuesdays and Thursdays, rotate locations, and are only advertised through the school, though other community members in need aren't turned away.
Harry Chapin has self-reported income guidelines. For Newman, given the number of children in the home, the family's annual income can't be more than $34,021 to qualify. Recipients also must sign that they are Florida residents.
"We really haven't closed the gap on what's needed in the community," said Joyce Jacobs, Harry Chapin's associate director.
A study by the food bank revealed it would have to distribute nearly 30 million pounds annually, compared with its current 13.5 million, to meet the actual food needs of the five counties.
The boxes of food handed out Thursday are supposed to last a family of five about five days.
Aaron Newman had big ideas for dinner that night with what they received: hamburgers, he told his mother.
"We're bouncing back," she said.