United Community Outreach Ministry (UCOM) Executive Director Sara Mitchell often invokes the words of television personality Mr. Rogers when she thinks of the food insecure clients her nonprofit serves. “Mr. Rogers said, ‘Who are the people in your neighborhood?’ Our vision is to be Southside strong!” she said.
UCOM, a not-for-profit charity established by 12 local churches in 1979, provides education and helps hungry individuals on the Southside of Jacksonville. Over the years, its reach has expanded to include a coalition of 38 area faith organizations, which support its efforts in three areas – Meals on Wheels, Emergency Services/Food Pantry and a Certified Nurse Assistant scholarship program.
“We live in a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ culture,” said Mitchell. “The real shock came for me when our data showed that the highest percentage of people visiting our food pantry were over 60 years old, disabled, or were veterans. Our clients are basically anyone on a fixed income, and that should tell us something about the economics here in Jacksonville. We can infer from our data that an individual with a fixed income will not have a comfortable debt-to-income ratio if they live in certain areas of Jacksonville.
“From our data we can also be plain, keeping it real, that most of us are one paycheck, one life event, or one crisis away from needing help. This is why there will always be hunger,” she continued.
“For some, we only see them until they are over the ‘hump.’ Meals on Wheels will only see them until they recover from surgery or their family moves them into a care facility. Our pantry will only see someone during a job transition or a relocation or during a huge medical bill season. Others we sustain because layers upon layers of reasons keep them in the cycle of crisis. They live so close to the edge that, without sustaining organizations, they would be homeless or worse,” she said.
UCOM partners with Aging True to deliver Meals on Wheels in the Southside area. Each day, volunteer drivers deliver close to 50 meals to housebound seniors, many of whom have no family in the area. Currently UCOM coordinates the largest Meals on Wheels volunteer-driven route in Jacksonville. Last year UCOM delivered 14,012 meals through its Meals on Wheels program. In addition to receiving a hot nutritious meal, the volunteers provided a safety check to their senior clients as well as shared a smile or a laugh.
The food pantry, located in the Old Congregational Church on St. Augustine Road, is open Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Food donations come from individuals, civic organizations, businesses, companies, and schools, many of which hold food drives. UCOM also partners with local grocers, picking up food that is close to its sell-by date. The Feeding Northeast Florida food bank also contributes to UCOM’s larder.
Thanks to John and Sandy Davoli, owners of Metro Diner, and Vic Rukab, owner of B&B Restaurant Equipment, UCOM’s food pantry recently added a large walk-in refrigerator/freezer so that it can provide more frozen meat and produce to its clients.
Last year UCOM provided supplemental groceries to 4,596 individual households, of which some come only monthly, said Mitchell. More than 2,830 children live in those house-holds year around, she said, adding that an additional 1,992 children join other families in the summer months when UCOM hands out lunches to take the place of the luncheon meals they would receive if school was in session. UCOM also provided bagged lunches and hygiene kits to 1,275 homeless individuals last year.
“Our data doesn’t show much fluctuation in the number of people served, but we have seen a difference in the demographic we serve that is a little unsettling,” Mitchell said. “There are more people being sustained with grocery assistance because of interlaced basic needs than there were 10 or 20 years ago. There is also a rise in service numbers to individuals over 60, as well as the disabled and veterans.”
The nonprofit also awarded full CNA Scholarships to 30 students to help them raise their earning potential.
Three fundraisers are held each year to support UCOM. South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church donates 25 percent of the proceeds of its September Crop Walk to the agency, and in the spring, the participating faith organizations come together for a celebration with song where all the proceeds go to purchasing food for the pantry. In the fall the annual chili cook-off is held to support UCOM.
UCOM’s greatest need, aside from monetary and food donations, are volunteers. “It takes many hands to keep an organization with lots of moving parts moving forward. We want to stay generous with what we provide families in need, and we want to stay generous with how we provide it,” said Mitchell. “UCOM’s Meals on Wheels drivers are sometimes the only face that a homebound person sees all week. Helping someone pack groceries from our pantry into their car may be the only kind ‘neighbor’ moment the client experiences that month. And what we do matters to us, too. After they spend exhausting mornings schlepping groceries for clients, our volunteers leave knowing they are rock stars and that the time they spent volunteering mattered,” she said.
“It is our collective Southside vision that no one needs to face the crisis of hunger alone,” said Mitchell.