TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Thanksgiving is a time to come together and say thanks for what we have. Sadly, many Floridians have a lot less this year due to the pandemic’s economic fallout.
Feeding America, Feeding Tampa Bay’s parent organization, estimates 50 million Americans will be food insecure this holiday season, roughly 15 million more than before the pandemic began. Long lines of cars could be seen snaking outside Florida food banks the day before Thanksgiving.
The pressure on food banks is expected to carry over into the new year as well, with CARES Act funds set to soon dry up and Congress unable to agree on another coronavirus relief bill.
More than two million Floridians collected unemployment at some point since the onset of the pandemic, the majority of them without some struggle along the way. That created a network of people who came together over social media to navigate the crisis together.
While many are back to work now, that same network wasn’t about to let any fellow members go without a Thanksgiving this year just because they’re still fighting for benefits or to find a job.
After spending months walking Florida’s unemployed through the state’s broken system, community activist Vanessa Brito remains hungry to help. A few days ago, she offered on Facebook to buy a few meals for those in her native south Florida still struggling with unemployment.
“When I put up the post, I really didn’t think that the response was going to be what it was,” Brito said.
Next thing she knew, people across the state were chiming in, both asking and offering help. Whether it was turkeys in Tampa or mashed potatoes in Miami, it became a social media meal train for Florida’s unemployed by Florida’s unemployed.
“It made me feel like I was a part of their family and someway, we’re all enjoying Thanksgiving together,” Brito said.
Mike Wilson is part of that family. The Ybor City bar manager went months without a paycheck or unemployment benefits, not to mention contracting COVID early on. Now that he’s back on his feet, he was eager to give back after seeing Brito’s post.
Wilson and his coworkers scrambled to buy and deliver several last-minute meals for Tampa families.
“The kids were so excited when I walked to the car with their turkey,” Wilson recalled. “They’re like ‘Mommy, we got a turkey!’ It was such a great great feeling we were able to do that.”
With Florida unemployment still twice what it was pre-pandemic, the holidays will be hard for many families. But that’s where Wilson and Brito say this newly-forged families comes in.
“The unemployment network is a form of hope for all of us,” Wilson said.