With her 7-month-old daughter's wide eyes peeking out from beneath a pink patterned sun hat, a Key West woman visited the Star of the Sea Outreach Mission food bank for the first time Thursday.
A package of infant formula awaited. All that was needed was the mother's signature.
"It's been tight this month," the woman said, holding her baby on her lap. She pointed to two boxes of formula, all sealed beneath clear plastic.
"That's about $30 right there," she said, seated across the desk from a volunteer who guided her through the simple process, while more than a dozen people milled about the food bank gathering a weekly supply in plastic bags that they must provide.
Opened in 2006 by St. Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church and now a separate nonprofit, the Stock Island agency, at 5640 McDonald Ave., is now one of the largest food banks in South Florida and has hit record levels of service to meet the growing hunger coursing through the country.
The government last week reported that more Americans are relying on food stamps for groceries; nearly 46 million.
In September, the Star of the Sea food bank served 4,000 people, the highest number in its brief history, and handed out more than 60,000 pounds of food to set a monthly record. The monthly average is 50,000 pounds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) measures one meal at 1.28 pounds.
Clients are welcome to browse the aisles and choose items themselves, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
On Thursday, the food bank was a bustling center connecting the needy with basic goods. In addition to food, the nonprofit offers free clothes, toiletries, diapers, pet food and other household basics.
"It provides a lot more dignity than just handing them a bag of food," said Tom Callahan, the volunteer executive director.
Yet nothing is exactly free for this Florida Keys nonprofit, which spends $5,000 a month buying food at a discount, and runs a mini-fleet of three refrigerated trucks that make daily trips to grocery stores, restaurants, businesses, relief agencies and private donors to essentially rescue food -- from dried and canned goods to fresh produce, meats and other perishables -- before it is thrown out before its time.
"Don't Throw Good Food Away" is the nonprofit's mantra, painted on each truck.
It's called "food recovery," searching the Keys for food that is headed for the Dumpsters due only to dented packaging or a nearing expiration date. Star of the Sea measures, weighs and records every detail of the food handling process, as required by the government to provide tax deductions for the corporate donors and to ensure safety.
"There is no more efficient way to address hunger relief than utilizing food that would have been wasted," Callahan said. "The USDA also estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of all food produced in this country eventually goes to waste."
Mac Lusinger, one of the food pantry's drivers, makes a regular trip to the Farm Share nonprofit near Miami, leaving at 3 a.m. to beat the U.S. 1 traffic and load as much as 3 tons of food in the large refrigerated truck. The haul often features fresh vegetables, from tomatoes to okra, Lusinger said.
The clients are the working poor, with very few homeless people, Callahan said.
About 15 percent of the U.S. population relied on food stamps in August, while the number of recipients reached 45.8 million, the Wall Street Journal reported last week after crunching the data provided by the Department of Agriculture.
In Florida, 3.2 million people used food stamps in August, making up about 17 percent of the state's population. Mississippi reported the highest percentage of food stamp recipients, at more than 21 percent.
The lone bright spot in the government's latest numbers is that while food stamp rolls have risen 8.1 percent in the past year, the pace of growth has slowed from the depths of the recession.
The number of Americans on food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is likely to increase as unemployment remains high and due to September's disaster assistance that arose from the Hurricane Irene devastation.
Star of the Sea will continue to help bridge the gaps between low wages and government assistance, Callahan said.
A young woman beamed as she left the Stock Island food bank on Thursday, carrying out bags of food. "I'll see you next week," she said.