POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A new initiative to feed hundreds of people in Polk County has taken on new significance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Way of Central Florida was already planning to launch new food pantry sites as part of the George W. Jenkins End Hunger Initiative in March.

“Because of the virus, the demand is going to be much greater than they ever planned,” said Rod Crowley, Chief Operating Officer of the United Way of Central Florida. “We at one time thought we would get these up and running with a little slower crowd and then start to promote it more but, as you know because of everything, it kind of promoted itself.”

The sites were initially designed to serve 200 families.

But some drive-thru sites have seen up to 400 vehicles.

“It’s hard to keep the spirits up in the household. When things like that get uncertain,” said Robbie Baldridge of Lakeland.

Baldridge is a tire technician. His wife is at high risk when it comes to coronavirus and he didn’t want to chance bringing it home with him.

So he isn’t working right now.

“We need help with the food, waiting on the stimulus that’s supposed to be coming, or is supposed to be already in the bank. We’re in bad shape so this helps out tremendously,” he said.

He came to the United Way of Central Florida’s drive-thru food pantry at Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine Tuesday afternoon.

Hundreds of other people did too.

They receive fruit, vegetables and other food items in partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay.

“We only require the information of a zip code and how many we’re serving, no other details. Anybody is welcome to come to any of our food sites,” said Crowley.

United Way also operates the 211 system, which provides information referral to callers.

Courtesy: United Way of Central Florida

“We’ve seen the call volume on 211 pretty much quadruple in the last month,” said Crowley.

Food is one of the main issues facing callers, according to Crowley.

“We’re definitely seeing it here on the front lines with what we’re doing with the initiative,” he said.

The United Way of Central Florida and GiveWell Foundation have launched the United Community Relief Fund to raise money for local non-profit organizations working to meet the growing need caused by the pandemic in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.

“I love the community coming together like this. I hate that it takes this. But it’s a real showing of what we can do,” said Baldridge, who left the site with a trunk full of food to bring home to his family.

To donate, visit https://www.givecf.org/united-community-relief-fund/.