Almost 1 Million People in South Florida Don't Know Where Next Meal is Coming From

As many as 3,558,910 people, almost 19 percent of Florida's population, were considered food insecure in 2011, according to numbers released by Feeding America

For Karen Neal, a few bags of fresh lettuce and okra go a long way.

The 57-year-old shares the produce with her 76-year-old mother, who is now in the hospital with pneumonia. Her mother usually cooks the okra with stewed tomatoes, bacon and rice. They share the food with Neal's children and grandchildren, including one daughter who's finishing college and has a child of her own.

Neal, who is retired and disabled, picks up the produce at least once a week from the food banks run by Feeding South Florida at the 15th Avenue Church of God in Fort Lauderdale. She is one of the almost 1 million people in South Florida who are food insecure, meaning she does not always know where her next meal is coming from.

As many as 3,558,910 people, almost 19 percent of Florida's population, were considered food insecure in 2011, according to numbers released by Feeding America, a national, non-profit food bank. That means almost one out of five Floridians -- higher than the national average of 16.4 percent -- is food insecure.

Since neither Neal nor her mother qualify for food stamps, the extra food makes a big difference.

"Sometimes you don't have the extra," Neal said. "This helps take care of my family and food is expensive. This helps out a lot."

The Florida counties with the highest food insecurity rates are Gadsden, Hamilton, Madison, Leon and Hendry.

In South Florida, Miami-Dade has the highest rate with 441,240 people, including 149,530 children, considered food insecure.

Many of those people fall above 130 percent of the federal poverty line, so they don't receive federal benefits like food stamps to help them purchase food.

Food banks like Feeding America, and its local affiliate Feeding South Florida, provide supplemental nutrition for those who can't receive federal benefits.

These are mostly working people that are living paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, according to Paco Velez, president and CEO of Feeding South Florida.

"It's bittersweet, because you know you're helping families, but at the same time there's so much more you can do and you want to do more," Velez said. "It's what a community should be doing."

The food banks add nutrition and diversity to the diets of many who can afford to buy at least the basics.

"This fills in the blank," Neal said. "It helps me out greatly, especially with the vegetables."

Feeding South Florida provides 35 million pounds of food every year to South Floridians from Palm Beach County to Monroe County. The food is donated from retailers like Winn Dixie, Publix and Walmart that have extra produce, as well as farmers and growers around the state.

Lena Armbrister, 67, is another retiree who supplements her weekly groceries with food she picks up at the food bank. Armbrister, who used to be a school teacher, provides food for her two older sisters who live at home with her and her husband.

"Whatever you get here, that's less for you to have to bag at the grocery store," Armbrister said. "It's a big help and I appreciate it."

Armbrister said she is thankful that her three children are grown and have their own jobs to provide for themselves, but many aren't so lucky.

More than 28 percent of children are food insecure in Florida, which is also higher than the national average of 22.4 percent. That comes out to more than one out of four children in the state who are not getting adequate nutrition at home.

In South Florida, an average of 23.4 percent of children are food insecure. That comes out to 196,600 children between Palm Beach and Monroe Counties.

"Most of these kids rely solely on school lunches," said Cagney Kobrin, Feeding South Florida's Children's Program Manager. "We'd like to think they eat breakfast, but at times it doesn't happen."

Kobrin oversees the non-profit's Backpack Program that provides school kids with a backpack full of enough food to take home for the weekend. The kids are given a gallon-sized bag that holds six meals, plus two snacks and two juice boxes.

This week, Kobrin and his team have been showing up on the last day of school for the Summer Gap Program that provides up to six weeks’ worth of food for children as they wait for summer camps and other summer programs to begin.

These ten-pound bags include fruit snacks, trail mix bars, and fruit cups, plus a little something extra.

"We gave them a little treat in the bag, so kids love it today," Kobrin said. "The first thing the kids see when they open the bag is a Snickers bar sitting on top."

Numbers at a Glance:

Miami-Dade County:
-Percentage of Food Insecure People: 17.8%
-Number of Food Insecure People: 441,240
-Percentage of Food Insecure Children: 27.4%
-Number of Food Insecure Children: 149,530

Broward county:
-Percentage of Food Insecure People: 16.5%
-Number of Food Insecure People: 286,780
-Percentage of Food Insecure Children: 20.5%
-Number of Food Insecure Children: 80,560

Palm Beach County:
-Percentage of Food Insecure People: 16.2%
-Number of Food Insecure People: 212,530
-Percentage of Food Insecure Children: 23.9%
-Number of Food Insecure Children: 64,080

Monroe County:
-Percentage of Food Insecure People: 12.8%
-Number of Food Insecure People: 9,360
-Percentage of Food Insecure Children: 21.8%
-Number of Food Insecure Children: 2430

Total number of food insecure South Floridians:
-South Florida (Palm Beach to Monroe): 949,910
-Percentage of food insecure people (Palm Beach to Monroe): 15.8%

Total number of food insecure children in South Florida:
-Number of children who are food insecure in South Florida (Palm Beach to Monroe): 196,600
-Average percentage of children who are food insecure in South Florida (Palm Beach to Monroe): 23.4%

This report was produced as part of a collaboration with,,,, and NBC's owned television stations.

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