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Hunger, said Liz Pecora, is “a silent epidemic.” And it’s an epidemic that is rampant where you might least expect it, including on Marco Island.

Pecora is the communications director for Our Daily Bread food pantry, a group that is working to alleviate hunger in and around Marco Island. The group has distributed 200,000 lbs. of free food through its programs so far this year and upped that figure by another 5,000 lbs. last week.

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In addition to the regular giveaways they hold on the second and fourth Saturday of each month at their headquarters next to the Family Church on Winterberry Drive, Our Daily Bread has added a mobile food pantry on the first and third Friday of the month, held at St. Mark’s Episcopal church on Collier Blvd.

This past Friday, they added a new wrinkle. In the past, Our Daily Bread has assembled paper grocery bags full of food, which they handed out to each recipient. That option is still available, said Pecora, but those who come to the food pantry now have the option of “shopping” for their own preferences, picking out the items they want.

“They can take a pre-filled bag, if they’re in a hurry, or they can pick and choose,” said volunteer Nancy McClay. It tends to sort out by gender, she said, with males more likely to “grab and go” with a ready-made bag, and women more apt to browse the offerings and select individual items.

“It’s great to be able to pick out what I want,” said Barbara Trefny of Marco Island, going down the line of items under the awning next to the food pantry’s trailer. “Before, I would sometimes bring back things that were in the bag I just didn’t want.”

McClay displayed the contents of one typical bag, plucked at random off the shelves in the trailer. It held bags of beans, rice and potato chips, boxes of store brand Cheerios and macaroni and cheese, cans of beef stew, fruit, pasta sauce and vegetables, and one perennial favorite, plastic containers of peanut butter and jelly.

Much of the food is donated from local grocery stores, the two Publix stores and the Winn-Dixie on the island, said Pecora. “Every Friday, the Our Daily Bread truck makes the rounds of the stores – we call it ‘retail rescue.’ Winn-Dixie has gone above and beyond.”

Our Daily Bread also receives donated food from the Harry Chapin Food Bank and the USDA, as well as individual donations. The group has a 24-hour donation box for non-perishable foods at their 1450 Winterberry Drive headquarters. They also buy food when needed items don’t come in as donations – cooking oil was one perennial need the group mentioned.

Our Daily Bread began as an affiliate of the Family Church, but now is an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization, so monetary donations are tax deductible. People who want to help can donate food, contribute financially, or put in volunteer hours, said Pecora.

“Even on Marco Island, over 40 percent of the schoolchildren qualify for the free or reduced price food programs,” she said. “Over the bridge, the need is even greater. That’s why we started Our Daily Bread.”

The group doesn’t discriminate when it comes to handing out food. There are no identification or income requirements, making it easier to help anyone who can use the donations. People stopping by to pick up food on Friday, many on their way home from work, included a broad cross-section of the community, island residents and workmen. Even the crew putting a new roof on St. Mark’s church stopped by to collect a bag of food. They followed the male pattern of just grabbing a pre-filled paper bag.

“It’s awesome what they do,” said Michael Nowlan of North Naples. “I have a son and a mother at home, and this helps a lot.”

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The Our Daily Bread free food pantry will be at 1450 Winterberry Drive on Oct. 26, and back at St. Mark’s on Nov. 1 and Nov. 15.

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