‘Hope’ for the holidays: Islanders package 250,000 meals Saturday morning

Lance Shearer

If you ever wanted an example of the “many hands make light work” axiom, you should have been at the Marco Island Charter Middle School gym on Saturday morning.

If you were there, among the 500 volunteers packing 250,000 nutritious meals for those needing food assistance at the Meals of Hope packaging event, you saw first-hand how a community, working together, can make good things happen in a short time.

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The Marco Island Charter Middle School gymnasium, looking like a cross between a factory floor and a rather agitated beehive, buzzed with activity, as team members each took care of their task to bring the overall task to fruition.

Over the course of a few hours, 40,000 lbs. of bulk food were packaged into a quarter million meals featuring pasta with tomato sauce, that will go to local Southwest Florida food pantries and families.

Some team members ladled the individual ingredients into each bag, some heat-sealed the packages, some shuttled the completed boxes of food to a collection, point, and some kept the teams supplied, shuttling noodles and soy protein from enormous bulk cartons that Meals of Hope buys in large quantities. With the organization’s purchasing power, each meal can be provided for an amazing 20 cents per meal.

Saturday’s event was the culmination of a year-long effort that began shortly after last year’s packaging event, said Marco Meals of Hope organizer Bill Morris. The group sponsored nine happy hours and a 50/50 raffle at Stan’s to raise the $50,000 necessary to pay for the meals packaged in the gym.

“We were still about $10,00 short, so I sent a request for 100 people to give $100 each,” said Morris, and the gap was closed. The packaging event’s primary sponsors are the Sunrise and Noontime Rotary Clubs plus the Marco Island Kiwanis Club, who each contributed financially, but volunteers came from a wide cross-section of groups.

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Emcee and deejay Kevin Fitzgerald asked those who were first-time volunteers to cheer, and got a good response, but their voices were far outnumbered when he asked the same of repeat participants. With so many experienced Meals of Hope hands, the gym, and even one overflow team out in the lobby, performed like a well-oiled machine. Attorney Neil Snyder, who ran the event for years before handing off to Morris, sold raffle tickets, getting a jump on fundraising for next year.

Erik Condee repeated his role as logistics czar, and reported the event was “running on autopilot.” New MIPD Chief Tracy Frazzano stood in one corner with Fire Chief Mike Murphy and MICMS Principal George Abounader – if you weren’t packing or carrying boxes, it was a good idea to stay out of the way – and watched with pride as the community. It was, said Frazzano, a great illustration of “better together,” the catchphrase the police department has been promoting in the community.

Marco Island’s effort wins great praise from Meals of Hope founder Steve Popper, who popped up everywhere around the gym keeping things moving.

“This group puts on the best-organized, easiest packaging event by far of any we do,” said Popper. Since beginning in Naples 12 years ago, the organization has grown nationwide, and packaged “something over 62 million meals,” he said. “We’re doing an event on Black Friday in Pittsburgh, packaging a million meals. We’ll do it in two hours. Last year, it took two hours and 15 minutes.”

The food packaged on Marco Island stays in Collier County, said Morris, including on Marco Island, where there are still people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

For more information, or to donate to Meals of Hope, a 501(c)3 charity, go online to www.mealsofhope.org.