AVON PARK – Although the Obama administration has forecasted healthy economic growth for 2014 compared to 2013, indications around food banks and outreach centers are that despite a better economy, they’re as busy as ever.
According to some area shelters and food bank directors, March and April 2014 numbers are up compared to 2013 and those needing help are keeping service center doors open.
At the Avon Park Service Center Tuesday morning, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise with executive director John Jeffo, who between phone calls and questions from staff, only had a few minutes to chat. From his office in the Avon Park center, 198 Rowe St., Jeffo said 2014 so far has been one of the organization’s busiest in the past 15 years he’s worked there.
In 2013, the Service Center helped about 7,500 families, or about 17,200 people, get food through its food bank or clothes and other day-to-day living supplies. Of those, about 470 families signed up for help for the first time, said Jeffo, the center’s director for the past five years. In addition, the center gave about 595 families a combined $36,000 in assistance with electric bills.
Many of those the service center helps are migrant workers for the citrus industry. To get assistance at the service center, an individual cannot make more than $15,000 per year.
“Some of these people are working, but they’re in menial jobs. There are a lot of older people not in the job market and their Social Security is minimal because their jobs were minimal when they were younger,” said Jeffo.
Jeffo, who also oversees the center’s 14-unit transitional housing unit off U.S. 27 and Landmark Street, said the center’s approximately 55 volunteers logged about 10,000 volunteer hours - an average of five to 10 hours each during a week - in 2013 and expects the same or more this year, despite an national economic upturn.
“There’s just not much here, no manufacturing in the area so we still have lot of people in menial jobs and they don’t make enough to pay the bills and that’s why we’re having such high numbers. I don’t see any change yet. If we were a bigger manufacturing area it may get better but those type of jobs just aren’t here.”
Although the numbers of more prosperity may not be evident at the service center, a White House projection shows the U.S. economy is expected to expand by 3.1 percent this year more quickly than last year’s 1.7 percent; growth would pick up to 3.4 percent in 2015.
The Obama administration also forecasts unemployment would better to an average of 6.9 percent in 2014. The jobless rate, which reached a high of 10 percent in 2009, fell to a five-year low of 6.6 percent in January.
About 25 miles south of the Avon Park Service Center, it was also a hustle-bustle Tuesday for about 10 of the approximately 60 volunteers at Lake Placid’s Manna Ministries, 416 Kent Ave. From there, Jane Brinkmeier, Manna’s administrative assistant for about five years, said in March, about 470 families were helped with food, clothing and financial assistance or about 1,400 people. She said numbers at Manna so far are slightly up from 2013 - which were high - but there hasn’t been a “big change.”
“Our numbers are staying very consistent to last year; we’re seeing new clients every day,” she said.
Statewide, Florida’s initial claims for unemployment insurance from March 30 to the week ending April 5 jumped 11.9 percent from the previous week. The change in seasonally adjusted data was similar as initial claims increased 11.5 percent to 17,250 claims, according to data from University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Some economists claim nationally the unemployment rate has dropped in part because many people have stopped looking for work. The U.S. labor force participation rate has fallen from over 66 percent before the start of the recession to 63 percent. U.S. News and World Report stated in March projections are for 3.5 percent growth in U.S. real Gross Domestic Product in 2014, for the unemployment rate to drop to around 6 percent by year-end and “for core inflation to remain below 2 percent year-on-year growth.”
The recession song remains the same for Samaritan’s Touch Care Center, Sebring, which gives free health care to low-income, uninsured residents of Highlands County. Priscilla Preece, Samaritan’s administrative assistant, said so far in 2014, the clinic is seeing more and more people without Medicaid or Affordable Care Act insurance. Although numbers for the year weren’t available Tuesday, she said 2014 has had a number of patients come in who still can’t afford insurance even with “Obamacare.”
“We plan to be seeing more and more people with no Medicaid or Affordable Care Act insurance this year,” she said.
Similar to other charitable organizations, so far, 2014 hasn’t been a boon year for those getting help at Faith Lutheran Church, Sebring. At the food bank there, 2740 Lakeview Dr., Lyle Storlie, vice-president Faith Lutheran Church Food Pantry, said between 120 and 125 families per week have been stopping in since January 2014, where once a month they can get food items brought in from the Heartland Food Bank.
About a dozen volunteers have been distributing food Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. added Lutheran Executive Director George Roberts. He said 78 percent of Lutheran’s clients are Hispanic agricultural workers and many of the rest are grandparents with grandchildren living with them. He said the Lutheran thrift store had “record numbers” during Christmas and January.
“It’s not just economic conditions,” Roberts said. “I think part of it is we’re (Lutheran Food Pantry) reaching out and making more of an awareness,” said Storlie.
As for the remainder of 2014, despite what the news tells him, Frank Davis of Avon Park said he thinks the service centers will be as busy as ever this year. The 60-year-old mason said he’s been getting assistance from the Avon Park Service Center for about two years and does think the economy is getting better, despite making weekly trips to the center.
“It’s a slow process,” he said, standing in the hall outside of Jeffo’s office. “It’s not as bad as it was but people still need help. We’re not out of the woods, but we’re not where we were, either.”
Reuters news service contributed to this story.