Rita doesn’t look hungry. The 56-year-old Lake Worth resident has had the same job as a door attendant in Palm Beach for 10 years. She gets paid every two weeks. She lives simply in a mobile home.
And yet she rarely has enough to prevail from paycheck to paycheck by herself, so part of her monthly routine is a visit to the CROS Ministries food pantry. She counts the bag of staples she gets there — pasta, canned vegetables and such — as a blessing, not a source of shame. So do hundreds of others who visit the modest space at Our Savior Lutheran Church, near Lake Worth High School.
“I’m grateful they’re here, and it’s hard to get help,” Rita said. “And this helps.”
The pantry is one of seven CROS Ministries operates across Palm Beach and Martin counties. As the nonprofit prepares to enter its 40th year of community service, stories like Rita’s are ones it is seeing frequently. In 2016:
- CROS pantries distributed food to 58,917 people, a population bigger than that of either Palm Beach Gardens or Lake Worth. More than one in three were children.
- Its Caring Kitchen served 85,260 meals to the poor, homeless, elderly and disabled in Delray Beach — or an average of about 235 meals per day.
- The CROS gleaning program, which harvests leftover food from farm fields, collected 411,140 pounds of vegetables and produce — the weight of about 150 Honda Civics. The Palm Beach County Food Bank distributed the gleanings to 100 food programs.
“Our values have always been tied into food problems, really,” said Nancy Edwards of Riviera Beach, who has been a member of the CROS board of directors and volunteered at the food pantry near her home for more than 35 years.
Ruth Mageria has been with CROS since 1998 and its director since 2014. She said the needs of the hungry in Palm Beach County have remained largely the same across those 17 years — as has the organization’s mission: filling gaps in income and the empty stomachs they create.
According to a 2017 study by Feeding South Florida, an affiliate of the national food bank Feeding America, 31 percent of the hungry in Palm Beach County do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and must rely on emergency food services such as CROS. The study also pegged the average cost of a meal in South Florida at $3.32, which works out to $69.72 per person per week. The average shortfall for hungry people in South Florida, however, is $19.61 per person per week, or $78.44 for a family of four.
“Many of (our patrons) already have jobs. The money’s just not enough. Many of them receive food stamps, but that does not carry them through the end of the month. We think of ourselves as an emergency food pantry,” Mageria said. “We think of ourselves — whether it’s our food programs, our food pantries, the hot-meal program in Delray Beach — we think of us as being constantly there so someone who’s in need of food can come in and find food.”
CROS Ministries began in 1978, when Palm Beach County’s population was less than half its present 1.3 million and Martin’s a third of its 155,000. A group of Methodist churches in Palm Beach County saw community needs — food insecurity, poverty, homelessness — and created a group to try to meet them by starting the first food pantry at Northwood United Methodist Church in West Palm Beach.
The city’s pantry has since moved to the Urban League Community Service Center on North Tamarind Avenue. Other pantries besides those in West Palm Beach and Lake Worth are in Jupiter, Riviera Beach, Delray Beach, Belle Glade and Indiantown.
Pamela Cahoon served as CROS’ director from its inception until she retired in January 2014. The organization began as Christians Reaching Out to Society, but over time has become known simply as CROS Ministries. Serving as only the organization’s second director, Mageria said her position has kept most of Cahoon’s original intentions in place — and that the conversation about hunger stays about “all of us,” rather than “the hungry” and “the fed.”
“The general public, when we think about who is hungry, we think about the person panhandling on the street because that’s who is hungry and has not eaten for days,” Mageria said. “So many times, it could be the person sitting next to me if I go to church, or it may be the child who’s on free and reduced lunch sitting next to my son in class, but when you look at him, he doesn’t look hungry.”
“When you think about food insecurity, it’s not out there. It’s really among us — we just don’t know who’s hungry. Children are one face of hunger that we don’t think about. The other face of hunger are our seniors,” she said. “Most of the people coming in don’t want to be there. But because they have children or dependents, they come in to make sure they have something to eat.”
CROS Ministries board president Rick Edlund said the sheer number of people CROS pantries have served over the years — nearly 60,000 people per year — testifies to the organization’s presence in the community as it nears its 40th year of service. He got involved five years ago after being referred by his church. He began as a volunteer, delivering lunchtime meals, and eventually spoke with Mageria about joining the board of directors.
“I go back to hunger is just such a fundamental issue. If you’re hungry, it’s hard to be a good student, hard to be a good employee, hard to look for employment and it’s hard to do much when you’re hungry,” he said. “Knowing we’re serving so many people that are hungry, it might give them the opportunity to do (more).”
Mageria said in an ideal world, she wouldn’t have a job because there were no hungry people. But in reality, organizations like CROS Ministries that have a consistent community presence are essential to curbing widespread hunger.
“The need will always be there. There will always be people coming in who are looking for food. There will always be people who are coming in that need that assistance,” she said.
CROS MINISTRIES BY THE NUMBERS
411,140: Pounds of food harvested by the CROS Gleaning Program during the 2015-16 season
200,000: The approximate number of people in Palm Beach County who don’t know where their next meal is coming from
85,260: Meals served by the Caring Kitchen in Delray Beach in 2016
58,917: People served by CROS pantries in 2016
24,180: After-school snacks provided to students in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach
15,360: Brown-bag weekend lunches distributed by Carson United Methodist Church in Delray Beach
3,000: Volunteers CROS relies on to work at food pantries, the Caring Kitchen and the Gleaning Program
79: People CROS helped sign up for federal government benefits, including food stamps, Medicaid and temporary cash assistance
16: Paid CROS employees
7: Food pantries in Palm Beach and Martin counties
2: Executive directors since CROS was founded in 1978
WANT TO DONATE?
Anyone interested in donating food to CROS Ministries’ pantries can call 561-779-7936.