The energy level in the gym was sky-high. Over 500 volunteers piled into the Marco Island Charter Middle School gymnasium on Saturday morning for the Meals of Hope meal packing event, assembling and boxing up food that will feed a quarter of a million people.

After numerous fundraisers to provide the money to buy the bulk food, Saturday morning was the payoff, when in a few short hours, the nutritious support was sent on its journey to help the homeless and needy in Southwest Florida.

Broken up into teams, with each member performing a specific task, the volunteers moved quickly and enthusiastically to put together pasta, soy protein, red sauce, vitamins and minerals into packages that were heat-sealed, boxed, palletized and loaded onto waiting trucks. In the hubbub of activity, the teams worked like a well-oiled machine, to the point where walking through the gym to take photos meant getting quickly out of the way of people dumping bags of noodles into bins, or carrying filled boxes to a collection point.

Event organizer and local attorney Bill Morris monitored the progress along with Meals of Hope founder Steve Popper and “logistics czar” Erik Condee, making sure volunteers had the supplies and equipment they needed, and keeping the machine humming.

“Everybody is here to give back. They all come to feed the hungry – and they have a great time doing it,” said Morris. “We had so many volunteers, we had to add one more packing station in the lobby.”

Morris and his wife Pegi brought four additional members of their numerous family to help the effort, making their “Team Morris” slogan a reality. Emcee and DJ Kevin Fitzgerald kept the uptempo tunes pumping, and teams let out a whoop every time they filled one more box.

“It’s great to see inter-generational groups working together,” said Morris. Making his point, Sloane Wheeler, 11, bustled past, carrying a box that seemed bigger than her, filled with meals.

Cub Scout leaders Brandi Garwood and Renee Reed brought members of their Pack 234 out to help with the effort.

While 250,000 meals seems like a lot, the need in Southwest Florida will absorb them quickly, said Popper.

“The reality is, all this food will be distributed by the second week in December,” he said. “We’ll start giving it out on Monday.

“In Collier County, 70.3 percent of public school children participate in the free and reduced school lunch program,” meaning they come from economically disadvantaged families, said Popper. “That’s the highest number since we started, 11 years ago.”

Over those 11 years, Meals of Hope has solicited, assembled and donated over 50 million meals, no small contribution to helping those in need. Using Meals of Hope’s connections and purchasing power, they can put together each meal for only twenty cents, making it far more effective to donate dollars to them, as opposed to purchasing and donating items such as canned goods.

Seeing all the hundreds of cardboard boxes gave volunteer Philip Penzo of Marco Office Supply an idea, and he buttonholed Popper to suggest that his company could buy the boxes, once emptied, to provide additional funds for the effort.

With over 100,000 people in Southwest Florida living without food security, or in other words not knowing if they will have anything to eat for their next meal, the food packed by Meals of Hope stays local, distributed primarily in Collier and Lee Counties.

For those who want to participate in an even bigger Meals of Hope event, Popper is once again organizing a massive “pack-a-thon” on Christmas Eve at Harborside in Fort Myers.

“Between nine and 11 p.m. on December 24, we’re going to pack a million meals,” he said. “It’s called ‘Holidays Without Hunger.’” For more information, or to make a donation to Meals of Hope, go online to

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