The Feeders

I’m looking at a lot of food right now. Acres of food. In cans, boxes, rubber containers, and plastic baggies.

There must be several jillion pallets of dry food and canned goods stored in this warehouse. And it all goes to hungry people.

“We feed people,” says Miss Rita. “Plain and simple.”

Rita is white-haired. Most of Manna’s volunteers are. Rita, like many others, comes to Manna to sort food and fill boxes for hungry people all over the Florida Panhandle.

She tells me that recipients who accept food from Manna often come to the back door so nobody will see them except Manna’s volunteers.

“There’s a lot of shame involved with not having enough food,” an employee says. “We have single moms who are humiliated because they can’t feed their kids. I’ve seen parents cry when they get bags of food.”

“Food is what makes us human. Think about it, food is life.”

She’s right. Food is more important than necessities like money, housing, transportation, clothes, shoes, or Michelob.”

While we are sorting food, someone arrives at the back door. It is a youngish woman with a tripod cane. She is staggering to the door. She doesn’t want me looking at her when she accepts her bag of food. So I turn my head and avoid eye contact.

“God bless you,” the woman whispers as she takes the bag and disappears.

Whereupon Miss Rita takes me back to the date verification station. This is my job for today.

These gazillions of pounds of food have to individually be checked for quality.

“People donate all kinds of weird stuff,” says Rita. “Sometimes, people donate half-eaten jars of peanut butter, and I just want to slap them and say, ‘Hello, we don’t want your spit.’

Miss Rita is a short, spunky, Rhode Island native who talks with a no-nonsense accent that sounds like a firearm. I get the feeling you wouldn’t want Rita mad at you.

She is constantly instructing me on how exactly she wants bins organized. She wants cans in neat stacks. She wants boxes in impeccable order. Rita is an incredibly sweet woman, but Rita has a rigid system of doing things. Rita would make a fine dictator.

“I’m 75 this year,” says Rita. “I should be retired, I know. But I volunteer here because I can’t imagine being hungry.”

In Escambia County, Florida, people are hungry. There are about 300,000 folks in this county; approximately 40,000 are hungry. That’s enough people to fill up Truist baseball stadium. One in four people within the U.S. are hungry.

Miss Rita works circles around me. And it’s tough work. Repetitive work. We are constantly bending at the waist, handling heavy boxes, checking to see what is outdated and what isn’t.

I am already sweating. Rita is winded, too, but she is tireless. She works with an energy that comes from somewhere deep.

“When you see your first hungry kid,” she says, “it’ll change you.”

I also meet an officer from the Pensacola Police Department. The officer is a school resources officer. Manna gives SROs boxes of food to give to kids. The boxes of food are in almost every school in the county.

“I remember this one kid who was a real mess,” says the officer. “He was a troublemaker. Going down a bad path.”

The kid used to come into the SRO’s office and just sit there, hardfaced, and wouldn’t say a thing except, “I hate cops.”

One day, the officer noticed the kid glaring at a package of ramen noodles in her food box. So the officer came to Manna and got a whole box of ramen noodles.

“He ate the noodles right in my office,” said the officer. “He ate the food like he was starving to death. Because he probably was.”

The officer started giving the kid food regularly. And the student’s attitude changed. Soon, he was friendly. Quick to laugh. He starting giving the officer hugs.

That was a long time ago. Today the officer and the student are close friends. The student is studying to become a commercial welder.

Soon, we are back at work. Handling canned goods. Miss Rita is working up a sweat. There are droplets rolling from her forehead. Her white hair is damp. And she is steadily sorting. She is not slowing down.

“Loving folks is easy,” she says, a little out of breath. “Don’t preach at them. Don’t judge them. Just feed them.”

For 20 minutes I’ve been trying to find a better phrase to end this column. But I can’t.


  1. stephen e acree - July 29, 2023 10:25 am

    That phrase is wonderful. We need to judge less and love more. Imagine how better things would be. John Lennon was on to something I guess.

    • Heidi - July 29, 2023 11:21 am

      That’s for sure, Stephen. I’ll see your John Lennon and raise you a Jesus. “I was hungry and you fed me. … Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” Especially since COVID, so many folks who were once donors to food banks are now customers. We never know when we’ll be the one in need. Thanks for another beautiful column, Sean – a great reminder to drop something into the box for others when I’m at the grocery store today.

  2. Katybeth - July 29, 2023 12:43 pm

    “…Put down that gun, you need a sandwich” – is a line in the in V1 The Voice Of God.

    Nobody should have to go hungry and if they are we should all make it our responsibility to feed them. Thank you Miss Rita.

  3. Dianne - July 29, 2023 9:32 pm

    Being hungry makes you irritable and shaky, gives you a headache, makes you hangry. I wonder how many kids who are acting out need a banana, instead of a scolding.

  4. Nina Lovel - August 3, 2023 6:10 pm

    Sean, I just met you last night, introduced by my daughter who lives in Vestavia, who met you on our friend Lauretta Hannon’s FB. I’ll know you better soon, but for now I’m here with your blog, in the dermatologist’s waiting room, with brimming eyes. God bless you and your gift!


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