HOLMES COUNTY — Over two dozen people with empty boxes and numbered tickets in hand formed a long line out the front door of Esto City Hall late Thursday afternoon.

HOLMES COUNTY — Over two dozen people with empty boxes and numbered tickets in hand formed a long line out the front door of Esto City Hall late Thursday afternoon. 

“A lot of people complain about the heat, but to me it’s worth it. This stuff is free,” said Graceville resident Grace Nevills, 32. 

Nevills was one of many who waited to claim a ration of the Farm Share delivery made in Gritney just a few hours prior. Being aware of the free food distribution facilitated by Gritney, Esto and Pittman Volunteer Fire Departments has helped Nevills’s family make ends meet on a disability income and part-time fast food job.

“Since I get paid every two weeks, this really helps out until I can get my next paycheck,” said Nevills. “This little bit here will last all weekend until I get paid again.”

Nevills’s family is like others Esto Fire Chief Tom Murphy said turns out to receive free food, toiletries and other miscellaneous items that show up on Farm Share’s delivery truck every other Thursday.

“We have big group of younger families that come in here,” said Murphy. “They’re working, but they’re just not quite making ends meet.”

Food recipients include young families to older residents on fixed incomes and everything in between.

“All you have to do is come in and say you need it,” said Murphy.

The opportunity for Holmes County residents to take home donated items collected from all over Florida and other parts of the country was made possible by Clifton Crews of Gritney Fire Department.

Crews was introduced to the idea by a friend who was familiar with Farm Share’s mission. Crews submitted an application on the department’s behalf to be a distribution site for donated food late in 2013.

Farm Share is a non-profit based in Homestead, Fla. with a panhandle location in Quincy. The organization uses inmate labor and volunteers to sort and package surplus food and produce discarded by commercial food plants and grocers because it’s not top grade or aesthetically pleasing.

The organization obtains nutritious food that would have gone to a landfill and diverts it to individuals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, churches and other distribution sites that feed the hungry.

Crews and his pal made weekly trips to the Food Share distribution center in Quincy in the beginning to bring whatever food would fit in their pickup trucks back to residents in the Gritney area. Crews eventually learned if he could get a couple of other entities to join his effort, he could get Farm Share to deliver food in bulk to Holmes County.

He reached out to other fire departments in Esto and Pittman and they showed immediate interest in getting that kind of assistance to rural residents. The three departments now split the delivery three ways for distribution in their respective communities.

“Once we got it started, we found there was a big need for it in Holmes County,” said Crews.

Nevills said she was glad to hear about the food distribution from someone in passing at her job. 

“Since I started working again, they stopped my food stamps,” she said.

Murphy said they never know what they will be able to pass out until the delivery truck arrives. The recipients don’t mind that some of the perishable food items are pushing their expiration dates, considering much of it can be safely consumed for a reasonable period past the dates suggested by retailers.

“If it wasn’t for them giving out the milk, they wouldn’t have cereal in the morning,” said Nevills. She referred to her two sons who benefit from the haul she typically brings home. She estimates it’s equal to about a $70 trip to the grocery store.

Nevills said she plans meals around what Farm Share delivers by pairing those items with other food she has at home.

“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what I’d be cooking for supper tonight,” she said. She added the potatoes and squash she was taking home would be great side dishes for the pork she had thawing out.

Murphy said donations in recent weeks included a bounty of milk, orange juice, meat, potatoes, bananas, watermelon, squash, corn, okra, candy, bottled water and military MREs. Other items are often personal hygiene products including anything from shampoo and tooth brushes to nail polish and adult diapers.

Esto had been passing out Farm Share donations for the past seven months. Esto helps 50 to 70 families with each distribution. Crews said Gritney sees anywhere from 90 to 105 households show up every other week, and Pittman supplies 100 to 125 families with the 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of produce and other food delivered each week.

“The stats in Holmes County are terrible for people on welfare, the unemployed and underemployment,” said Murphy.

According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Holmes County’s unemployment rate last month was at 6.6 percent which is the same rate it was in May last year. Unemployment rates in surrounding counties are lower at 6.0 percent in Washington, 4.7 percent in Walton and 5.9 percent in Jackson. The state unemployment rate is 5.7 percent, and nationally it is 5.5 percent.

Currently, 16.1 percent of Floridians receive food stamps. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4.1 percent of the U.S. population receives some form of welfare benefits, such as food stamps, temporary assistance or social security.

The fire departments allow anyone who shows up with a need to take donations on a first come, first serve basis. Crews said the departments try to get rations of food to as many people as possible, so the three locations require recipients to sign up by giving their name, address, number of people in the household and the income. Everything is self-reported on an honor system.

“The reason we do that is to try not to let people abuse the program,” said Crews. The departments prohibit recipients from showing up at more than one location to claim food and stay in contact to keep track of who is picking up where.

The next Farm Share disbursement will be Thursday, July 2. Gritney passes out food beginning at 3 p.m. until supplies are gone, and Pittman and Esto start passing out at 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. or supplies are gone.  

Crews said he and his wife, Judy, look forward to helping with the distribution of items delivered every other week. He is open to helping other organizations in the community through the application process to be a Farm Share distribution center.

He said it’s been one of the more fulfilling ways to spend time in their retirement.

“It’s amazing. It really is,” said Crews.