LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — Publix, one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains that employ nearly a quarter of a million people, aimed to tackle hunger at its corporate office in Lakeland Thursday.

“As a food retailer, Publix wants to have a role in helping ease that burden for our neighbors,” said CEO Todd Jones.

Jones started working at Publix 43 years ago, he said, as a bagger.

“I think all of us have had times in our lives that we probably have struggled,” he said.

Jones reflected multiple times on the philosophy of Publix founder George Jenkins.

“Mr. George never thought that we were just in the grocery business, but rather we were in the people business,” he said.

Jones hosted the inaugural Publix Hunger Summit Thursday, which gathered elected officials, Publix executives, and representatives from Feeding America affiliates across the southeast to discuss how to address hunger better.

“Our goal was to get everybody together to see how we can do more working together. What’s working well? How can we do more of that? But at the same time step back from things that aren’t working, learn from that so we can actually do more for the communities that we serve,” Jones said.

Publix is a top source of food and funds for Feeding Tampa Bay, according to President & CEO Thomas Mantz.

Publix Super Markets Charities has donated over $46.5 million to Feeding America food banks and other affiliates since 2015, according to Jones.

“The most important thing that Publix is doing here today is saying this is an issue across our communities and it’s an issue for all of us and we have a responsibility to get involved in it,” Mantz said.

Mantz said his organization has seen a 40% increase in need over the last 18 months.

Data shows between 18-19% of people in the Tampa Bay area are food insecure, but Mantz said the number of people who are economically unstable is greater than that.

“The people that seek our services are generally employed, part of the infrastructure of our community,” said Mantz. “They’re folks that teach our children, that provide services to us that are in our lives every single day.”

Feeding Tampa Bay, like the people it serves, is dealing with rising costs of food and gas.

Publix CEO Todd Jones recognizes prices are up at grocery stores.

“We’re going to do everything we can to provide food for those in need, which in itself I hope does help some of those inflationary pressures that they’re dealing with,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-District 9) and U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee (R-District 15) shared their expertise on the agriculture industry and food banks.

“Reach out to your state, local and federal officials and make sure they understand the stories that you see and the needs that you see,” Rep. Lee said.

Publix surprised the participating Feeding America affiliates with $4 million in grants to help serve the 7 million people who are food insecure in the southeast.