POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — As food costs remain high, Feeding Tampa Bay is expanding its school pantry program into Polk County for the first time.

“Demand for our services in this inflation time have been up at least 35% – 40%,” said Thomas Mantz, President and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay.

Mantz said the need was decreasing from a pandemic peak and then skyrocketed in the last several months as food prices rose by more than 10% compared to last year.

“The families that we serve are adversely and significantly impacted by the cost of gas, rent and food, all of which went way up,” Mantz said. “Gas is coming down a little bit, food is staying high and rent is staying high.”

Five years ago, Feeding Tampa Bay launched its “Feeding Minds” school pantry program with five locations.

It has expanded throughout the years to 74 schools and college campuses in several Bay area counties, with the first Polk County location opening in Poinciana next week.

“This is a very diverse school. We are over 90% minority. 100% qualify for free and reduced lunch,” said Wanda Aponte, the new principal at Lake Marion Creek Middle School.

Aponte opened a school pantry at her last school after she went to discipline a student with suspension.

“He started crying. And I’m like, ‘why are you crying?’ He’s like, ‘because I have no food at home’,” she said.

She ran a food pantry at that school for 12 years before becoming principal at Lake Marion Creek Middle School this school year.

“I know that we have kids on campus that are not eating like they should,” she said.

Aponte said the area around the school is a food desert, with no grocery options within five miles.

“My goal of making the school part of the community and a community-based institution where people can come and get some of their needs met, I felt that the pantry project would be essential to that,” she said.

The pantry will include canned goods, cereals, rice, pasta as well as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats from Feeding Tampa Bay.

It’s located in a room off the cafeteria with a door accessible from the parking lot that offers pantry-goers privacy.

It will be open every other Thursday from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. starting Sept. 1.