Food and More through a Welcoming Door

Lake Cares executive director Irene O'Malley (right) with volunteer Linda get ready to assemble the next food order.

When it comes to poverty in our community, Lake Cares

With poverty rising in Lake County and many going hungry without some form of food assistance, Lake Cares Food Pantry is the main source of emergency relief for all of the county.

The idea for the pantry started back in 2008 during the Great Recession, when no one was sure how deep it would go. A three-county holiday food drive was dreamed up by Debra Paradis as part of a challenge from her Lake Mary church. And although when 96 churches were contacted to attend a meeting about the drive, only six people showed up.

Irene O’Malley was one of those six, representing First Baptist of Eustis. “Our church was collecting food at the time, but we never knew where to take it.”

The six decided to plan the food drive nonetheless, and when the food was distributed from the back of a U-Haul parked at Hillcrest Insurance Agency in Mount Dora, they were amazed at how long the lines were.

“Debra and Jodie McEwan (another coordinator of the event) decided they weren’t just going to do it for the holidays,” she says.  Many cities in Lake County have pantries serving their own residents needs, but something broader was needed.

Soon after—in April 2009—Lake Cares was born, operating out of a building located at the corner of Old 441 and Morningside Drive. The building was offered to them rent- and utility-free for the first year by JIm Croson (of JA Croson HVAC and Plumbing in Sorrento).

Lake Cares Pantry is located on old US-441 and Morningside Drive
Lake Cares Pantry is located on old US-441 and Morningside Drive

O’Malley, who started with Lake Cares as a volunteer, says initially they served between 15 and 25 families a week, but once word got out the lines of people waiting for food got steadily longer. By year’s end, they had served 6,570.

“We had every intention of being around for one or two years,” she says. “We thought the economy would get better and people wouldn’t need us any more. But that didn’t happen.”

Last year, more than 340,000 pounds of food was given out to 25,000 people, and this year the non-profit pantry expects to feed more than 30,000. “Unfortunately the need keeps rising,” O’Malley says, who is now executive director.

Croson ended up donating the building to Lake Cares after the first year. It has an unusual history: Built in the 1920s, it started as a brothel called the Sylvan Shores Hotel, compete with 29 rooms on the second floor. The hotel changed hands numerous times over the years, later as a restaurant and then a topless biker bar called the Highway Inn, which was closed in the mid-1980s after a raid by the ATF.

“I like to say we’re servicing the community, just in a different way,” laughs O’Malley.

Originally the pantry served food once a week on a first-come, first-served basis, but when people started lining up at 5 a.m., they knew they had to do something different.

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“I was getting my hair cut over at Robert and Robert and the woman said, let me book you for your next appointment,” O’Malley says. “And I thought, why can’t we go by appointments?  So we tried 15-minute appointments, and our clients absolutely loved it. Many are driven here by other people and it’s much easier now to drop them off and pick them up.”

A second food distribution was added on Wednesdays when they noticed so many seniors trying to line up in wheelchairs and walkers and carrying oxygen tanks. “Now 65 percent of our customers are seniors and disabled,” O’Malley says. “We have 38 who are 85 or over, two who are 96. And that’s heartbreaking.”

When clients show up for their food appointment, clients check in with volunteers at a desk outside and get a number which they are called.  For those showing up for the first time or who don’t have an appointment, they’re accommodated in spaces left by no-shows or cancellations.

All that’s asked is that they are a Lake County resident and can provide photo I.D.; no proof of income is asked for.  “We figure if they’re standing here waiting for food, we’re going to give it to them,” O’Malley says. “If they do not need the food and they’re taking it, our philosophy is, there’s a final judgment day and it’s not handled by us.”

A volunteer interviewer with clients
A volunteer interviewer with clients

Once their number is called, clients are seen by interviewers whose main job is to determine their food needs for the next six weeks. (Clients are also given directions to other pantries in the area in case their supply runs out early.)

The process is brisk, with many volunteers handling the interviews. (Seven families are processed ever fifteen minutes).  During the interview their information is updated. They’re asked if things have gotten better or worse, if there are more who need to be feed. Do they collect social security and/or food stamps? Are they on disability?

Next they get down to food. “We ask what their family needs,” O’Malley says. “What kind of beverages — coffee, juice, tea? What do you want for breakfast? cereal, grits, oatmeal, pancakes? What kind of canned veggies and canned fruits  to you like? And what kind of personal items do you need? because you can’t buy personal items with food stamps.” They’re asked about food allergies and if they have low blood sugar. They also review a list of “specials” the pantry currently has on hand.

The information supplied goes into a database called PantrySoft which allows the center a lode of statistical information about changing needs in the community. “We can tell how many are living in their cars or with relatives, how many are seniors, age groups, things like that,” O’Malley says.

After the interview, the form is sent in back for picking. There are three large rooms filled with pantry supplies. One is for occasional items and overstock, another is filled personal items like toothpaste, laundry detergent and pet food. (There are elderly people who would rather feed their pets and starve themselves.) “We can forget the furry babies,” she says.

There’s an enormous freezer/refrigerator which O’Malley proudly called “Nirvana.” It was donated by the Mount Dora Community Trust in November 2014. “Before we had a lineup of old fridges and freezers, and it was terribly inefficient,” she says. “Now we can get meat by the bin, which is so much cheaper.” She also showed a stack of boxes of hydroponic lettuce, donated by Living Towers, a Eustis hydroponic farm.

Volunteers pull food orders
Volunteers pull food orders

In the main room, four volunteers were busy pulling orders, laying out food on a central table where it was quickly bagged and hauled out to the pickup area.  Some food staples go in every order—soup, macaroni and chees, rice, pasta, spaghetti sauce—with quantities determined by the household size. There were large bins of produce, and a refrigeration unit filled with meat (boneless chicken breasts and bacon) and dairy products (milk, eggs and margarine.)

One six-week order for a family of three took up eight plastic bags, which were loaded up in a large cart and taken out to the client’s car.

It’s no wonder that more than 140 active volunteers are needed to help run the Lake Cares operation.  “They are the heart of this place” she says. “We would be very limited without them.”

There’s something for everyone to do there, whether its checking in clients or pulling orders or helping stage events through the year.  “We even have some seniors who are too physically limited to go out, but still they help us out by double-bagging grocery bags,” O’Malley says.

Lake Cares volunteer base is 140 helpers strong
Lake Cares volunteer base is 140 helpers strong

That day, Mona Tatje was pulling from the produce/meat/dairy side. A while back Mona was working as a dental assistant in the office where O’Malley gets her dental work. She inspired me,” Mona says. “As a patient she just glowed with this place.” That made Mona a Lake Cares volunteer. On that day, Mona had the glow, too.

O’Malley said that although she didn’t like to admit it, there was one type of volunteer they are in sore need of: men with strong backs. “It seems like once they reach a certain age, men either want to play golf or their back has gone out,” she sighs.

Lake Cares continues to extend its food services. A mobile food distribution stops by the Martin Luther King community center on the first and third Friday of the month from 9-10:30 p.m. (One of the Lake Cares volunteers, Gina Conway, recently started a senior club there twice a month with food provided by Lake Cares.) A second mobile food distribution was added recently at the Bates Avenue Resource Center in Eustis, offering food on the second and fourth Friday of the month from 1-3 p.m.

And there are a number of other services Lake Cares provides. They distribute food twice a month at the Martin Luther King community center. They process about more than 300 food stamp applications a year. They are the only agency in Lake County with an on-site Affordable Care Act navigator (they have two, one in Mount Dora, the other in Clermont). Lake Cares has offered GED, computer and English language classes, and on certain days a counselor, a lawyer and a yoga instructor offer on-site services. They’ve worked out an arrangement with Walgreens and CVS to offer free flu shots for their clients. And they’re rented out some of those upstairs “pleasure suites” to folks in need of office space—a missionary, a life skills coach, a food columnist. “We had a guy who was booking midget wrestling, but he got married,” O’Malley says.

Lake Cares depends almost wholly upon the good will of the community. Except for a small grant from Lake County Human Services, the rest of the operation is supplied by donations, grants and fundraising.

Lake Cares has little hired staff—O’Malley, as executive director, is the only full-timer. She brings a unique experience to the job. She once designed women’s clothes in New York City and then was a virtual online instructor for major companies like Apple Computer, Disney World, AAA. “I was born and raised in Canada, moved from there to Manhattan, down to Miami and from Miami here to heaven,” she says.

“You gotta love this place … you really do.”

O’Malley recently went before Mount Dora city council as well as Lake County commissioners to remind them that poverty is increasing (up from 13 to 17 percent in just four years in Lake County). She asked that government join with citizens to address this growing need. To that end, Lake Cares is sponsoring a dinner event on May 19 capped by a presentation by Dr. Donna Beegle, a national authority on the breaking the cycle of poverty.  (Tickets are $30; details and purchasing information is on the Lake Cares website: or calling 352-383-0100.)

O’Malley stresses that it is an awareness event, not a fundraiser. “If we don’t help these people better, the problem is just going to continue growing,” she says.

“And then there’s this,” she concludes. “What would happen if Lake Cares wasn’t here any more? Folks in government in Mount Dora and Eustis and Tavares need to think about that.”

And with that, O’Malley was back to work on another full-press day at Lake Cares, beaming a smile in every direction while trying to figure out how to help even more every person who walked in through the door.

Volunteer receptionists welcome clients as they process through for food
Volunteer receptionists welcome clients as they process through for food


David Cohea, Writer (