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Meals of Hope deals with shortages of donations and volunteers

A member of the Meals of Hope Staff loads the truck full of supplies. These will go to one of the many food pantries in Southwest Florida.
Joe Hall
A member of the Meals of Hope Staff loads the truck full of supplies. These will go to one of the many food pantries in Southwest Florida.

Steve Popper runs Meals of Hope in Naples. The organization packs millions of meals for those in need all over the United States. It runs 14 food pantries in Southwest Florida alone and serves thousands of families there.

"At those We're giving out frozen meat, fresh produce, canned goods, dry goods, feminine hygiene products, and adult incontinence products and diapers," said Popper. "So, we're really making the difference to literally thousands and thousands of families."

But this year, supply shortages and rising prices have deeply impacted food supply. CARES act funding has dried up. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or, CARES Act, was passed by Congress on March 27th, 2020. This bill allotted $2.2 trillion to provide fast and direct economic aid to the American people negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What hasn’t changed is the number of hungry people.

"It's going to take about $1.7 million worth of food in order to take care of the 3000 families that come to our food pantries every week," said Popper. "We don't know where that $1.7 million is going to come from."

Adding to the challenge is a shortage of volunteers. Meals of Hope has 18 full-time employees. The organization usually needs thousands of people to prepare for the holiday season.

"We have a big Christmas time packing event, at this year, December 18," said Popper. "At the Lee County Civic Center, our hope is that we'll have 2,500 people that Saturday morning and pack half a million meals."

He urges anyone interested in volunteering to call. In fact, the Meals of Hope answering machine directs you right to him.

Popper: “Good afternoon, Meals of Hope.”

Joseph Hall, A Reporter's Notebook
Behind the scenes of a massive food pantry network lies a humble and welcoming office building.

Hidden in an industrial neighborhood of North Naples is an unassuming, tiny warehouse that feeds thousands of people in impoverished communities. Meals of Hope ships food and goods to those in need out of a two-story, garage warehouse, situated between an auto-body shop and a company that sells countertops.

Then again, Meals of Hope does not require an extravagant base of operations. CEO and Founder Steve Popper and his team of 17 employees simply orchestrate where and when food is packed and distributed from this place. The practicality of it was a must, but the welcoming nature of the place was a unique touch that I did not expect.

Fruit, powdered mashed potatoes, diapers and more are stacked in the back, but they are not yet ready to be distributed. That's what the volunteers do at Meals of Hope packing events. As I arrived, a truck was pulling in to deliver more. The layout of the garage would certainly change while I was talking to Steve.

A worker unloads from a truck, where from here it will be made ready to be packed and distributed.
Joseph Hall
A worker unloads from a truck, where from here it will be made ready to be packed and distributed.

The term “warehouse” definitely works for the back of the building, but certainly not the front. Walking inside, I am immediately reminded of an old apartment. The creaky staircase and single-sink kitchen proved that. The welcoming environment caught me off guard; I was there to talk to a CEO about the company’s challenges, not feel welcomed by staff who have never met me. There is always at least one person downstairs to direct anyone who enters to where they were meant to go. I have been there twice, and both those times I was unsure of where to go.

“I’m here to see Steve,” I would say, and before I could get a chance to explain myself and the business I was attending to, the women would kindly tell me to go upstairs and to the left. I do not remember if they called me “sweetie,” but it would certainly fit in that environment.

It was not difficult to find Steve Popper’s office. The CEO’s door was wide open and on the outside of it was construction paper art reading “Steve.” The office itself was quite humble for

the CEO and owner of the establishment. It is no bigger or more decorated than the other offices; it is easy to tell that because everyone’s doors are open, even when they are not there.

I spoke with Popper, and got the story I came for. Popper and I shook hands, but I could not help but ask for a tour of this place. The blend of professionalism and homelyness fascinated me. I think Popper knew this, as he seemed eager to show me around. The smile on his face as we walked the narrow halls showed me that he was immensely proud of this place and all the good he has done here.

This humble location sitting between auto body shops is perfect for Popper. They have had no issue feeding the community out of this small space, and Popper vows to continue doing so for as long as he can.