Photography by Dan Austin
Recipes by Gabriella Vigoreaux

Join the movement to fight hunger!  Everything you need to know about volunteering at local food pantries and a few recipes to inspire the conversation with family and friends.

Our community is hungry.

According to the United Way of Central Florida, in Polk County, 95,800 people – 15% of our community – cannot afford to feed their families three meals a day. Thirty-two thousand four hundred seventy children have no idea if food will be available to them when they are hungry. There are eight food deserts in Lakeland alone, these areas or regions where the nearest grocery store is more than one mile away, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture.

In March 2020, the United Way of Central Florida launched a large-scale effort to shrink the number of food deserts and ensure that healthy food is available to anyone who needs it. With generous donations from the George Jenkins Foundation and in partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay, the George W. Jenkins End Hunger Initiative launched, and today there are 17 food distribution sites in Polk County, with 21 total in the Polk, Highlands, and Hardee County area. Four of these sites are in Lakeland alone. Since its inception, these efforts have provided healthy food to nearly 500,000 individuals. 

When we envision food pantries, we often think of the canned food drives schools host during the holidays, rows of shelf-stable sustenance, expired goods, and damaged boxes. The George Jenkins End Hunger Initiative strives to be different. End Hunger Pantry-goers will find fresh produce, frozen meat, protein products, and bread at almost every distribution. Sites do not collect items from the community; instead, they partner with Feeding Tampa Bay to receive fresh deliveries the morning of each distribution. Volunteers work furiously to unload pallets, often more than 8,000 pounds of food, into individual household boxes before the distribution begins.  

Access to the pantries is open to anyone. No identification is required; distribution sites will only ask for basic information, including a zip code and the number of people in the household.  

United Way of Central Florida Chief Operating Officer Rod Crowley says, “Our community is so fortunate to have the most dedicated donors, collaborative partner organizations, and passionate volunteers contributing to these efforts. Their collective community impact is unrivaled.”

The Lakelander visited several of these food distribution sites to understand the magic that occurs when donors give their financial gifts, volunteers give of their time and the community benefits. Our chef has created recipes to correlate with some of the items found at recent distribution sites and shared them here with our readers. As you enjoy these dishes in your home, we humbly ask that you share the food pantry resources and distribution schedule with those in your circle who may be hungry, offer to volunteer your time, or, if you are able, make a donation to support the ongoing provision of food to end hunger in our community.

Smoky Maple + Beer Chili

Serves 4-6

The beauty of this recipe is in the flexibility. Use whatever ground protein you have on hand and feel free to sub the kidney and navy beans for any canned bean you have lying around.


1 1/2 lb. ground meat (beef, turkey or chicken )
1 1/2 c. light beer
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp. ground cumin
2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. Chili powder
1 tsp. ground coriander
Kosher salt
2 Tbsp. adobo sauce from 1 can chipotle chiles in adobo
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed
1 (15-ounce) can navy beans, rinsed
1/4 c. maple syrup
Shredded cheese, sour cream + pickled jalapeños, for serving



In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat (or your choice of protein) with ½ cup beer and mix until the beer is absorbed. In a large pot, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the protein and cook. Break up the protein with a wooden spoon for 5 to 6 minutes until cooked throughout. Transfer the cooked meat and its juices to a bowl.

Return the pot to medium and add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Cook onion and garlic, stirring, until tender for 4 minutes. Add cumin, cocoa powder, chili powder, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring 30 seconds. Add remaining 1 cup beer and bring to a simmer, scraping any bits on the bottom of the pot. Add adobo sauce, tomatoes, beans, maple syrup, meat, and juices to the pot and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Serve chili with cheddar, sour cream, and jalapeños.


Winter Panzanella with Cheesy Croutons, Dates + Pecans

Serves 4

A  garlicky, butter bath and a hot oven are all you need to transform a stale loaf of bread into the star ingredient for this hearty, cold-weather salad. 


For the croutons:
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, grated
6 cups day-old bread, cubed
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
For the salad:
1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
8 oz brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
½ cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
½ cup toasted pecan, chopped



Preheat the oven to 400F. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter until foamy. Add the garlic and bread cubes toss to coat. Add most of the Parmesan and stir together. Transfer bread cubes to a baking sheet, sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, flipping once or twice, until golden and crispy. 

Set aside and let cool.

Set the oven to 425F. Toss squash, sweet potato, and brussels sprouts with 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, and thyme. Arrange in a single layer on two baking sheets and roast until tender and lightly browned for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through cooking. 

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, soak the sliced onion in the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt for 15 minutes.

To make the dressing, whisk ½ cup olive oil, maple syrup, and mustard into a bowl with onions and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Assemble the salad by tossing the roasted vegetables, bread, parsley, dates, and walnuts with the dressing. Sprinkle with extra parmesan cheese if desired and serve immediately. 


Sesame-Ginger Shrimp Toast

These shrimp toasts make a surprisingly simple, and flavorful at-home snack or appetizer. 


1 large baguette sliced
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup basil leaves
1 jalapeno, seeds removed and sliced
1 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts separated)
1 tsp. finely grated ginger
1 tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp sugar
¾ cups panko-style breadcrumbs
Kosher salt
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
Sesame seeds, for garnish



Arrange oven rack 6 inches from broiler. Place baguette slices in a single layer on a large foil-lined baking sheet. Broil 1 to 2 minutes, until the tops are golden. Flip and brush undersides with melted butter; set baguette slices aside

In a food processor, pulse basil, jalapeno, garlic, scallion whites, ginger, sesame oil, sugar, 1/4 cup panko, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt until finely chopped. Add shrimp and mayonnaise, pulsing until shrimp are finely chopped. Divide shrimp mixture among buttered baguette slices.

Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of panko and melted butter in a small bowl. Top each toast with the panko mixture. Broil 1 to 2 minutes, until golden and shrimp are cooked thoroughly. Serve toasts topped with sesame seeds and scallion greens. 



Lakeland volunteers in Medicine 

600 W. Peachtree St., Lakeland

Every second and last Tuesday at noon.

Crystal Lake Elementary 

700 Galvin Dr., Lakeland

Every first and third Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Blessings & Hope 

2150 E. Edgewood Dr., Lakeland

Every second and fourth Tuesday at noon.

Pilgrim Rest Free Will Baptist Church

1052 N Kettles Ave., Lakeland

Every first and third Monday at 9:00 a.m.

Distribution sites and times are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information and a complete county-wide list, please visit:

To make a donation, please visit: and click 

GIVE NOW. To volunteer, please contact the distribution site directly.