In 1999, Debbie Lattin joined together with a few friends and formed a hunger relief organization in Citrus County, known as Citrus County Harvest.
After meeting the director of the national organization, Blessings in a Backpack, she decided to open a local chapter in 2009 serving 50 students in Hernando.
In order to keep all the donations in Citrus County, Lattin's group ended its relationship with Blessings in a Backpack and became Citrus County Blessings in 2012. The organization now serves all 21 public schools in the district, as well as four private schools.
The new executive director, Connie Storms, came to Florida from Iowa seven years ago.
“My degrees in nutrition and nonprofit management made this job a perfect fit for me,” Storms said.
Blessings' mission is to make sure that no child goes hungry over the weekend during the school year. Students are referred to Blessings by teachers, guidance counselors, or other school staff members.
“The child is sent home on Friday with a bag of individually packaged food items such as granola bars, breakfast cereal, applesauce, tuna, crackers, canned pasta and bottled water. Each bag contains 12 to 15 items. If there are preschool-aged children in the household, they are provided a food bag, too,” Blessings Operations Director Christina Struble said.
Struble said that during the 2018-2019 school year, Blessings provided weekend nutrition for 1,520 students. The four main reasons cited for the need, according to surveys filled out by the parents, are low wages, cost of housing, unemployment and change in family structure.
Feeding that many people is a lot of work: 800 volunteers actively participate in all phases of the operation, from pantry workers to packers, delivery drivers and people who work special events.
It also takes a lot of help, in the form of monetary and material donations.
“Recently, Suncoast Credit Union donated 20 bags of food, gathered from customer and employee donations, totaling 354 lbs of food,” Storms said.
Most of the food is purchased through the Community Food Bank, and is always soliciting donations. Right now, it's looking for single-serving cereal boxes, Pop-Tarts, granola bars, fruit cups, raisins, tuna in a pouch or can, Vienna sausages, SpaghettiOs, Beefaroni, hearty soups, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, cheese, pudding cups, water bottles and drink boxes. Pop-top containers are preferred.
“The big back-to-school push is this week,” Storms said. Pantries will be receiving deliveries of food and packers will get to work on the individual bags. Each school will receive its shipment to be ready for the first weekend of the school year.
Citrus County Blessings’ biggest fundraiser of the year, the fifth annual Halloween Costume Ball, will be Oct. 26 at the Rock Crusher Pavilion, 275 S. Rock Crusher Road. Advance ticket purchase is required; the cost is $35 per person and $45 after Aug. 31. Price includes food and a drink ticket. Sponsorships and reserved tables are still available.