A bigger blessing: Poinciana church to make large expansion to serve those in need

A line forms at the St. Rose of Lima church of people waiting to get food from its pantry.

Thousands of people stop by St. Rose of Lima’s food pantry each year, and church officials are preparing for a major expansion to help meet a growing need in the community.

The effort is even receiving bipartisan support from government officials at all levels.

The Lima Center is envisioned as a resource for Poinciana residents in both Osceola and Polk counties, and will Include a social service center, food pantry and emergency shelter located at the Catholic church’s 33-acre campus off Pleasant Hill Road.

The food pantry has operated from a small 1950s ranch house for a decade, serving 600 to 700 families a month and distributing about 126 tons of food annually, according to Martha Cusimano, development chair for St. Rose of Lima.

Outreach efforts began during the recession, when many Poinciana families grappled with unemployment, foreclosure, food insecurity and other hardships. Church staff worked tirelessly to meet community demand, enlisting the help of 100 regular volunteers.

St. Rose joined Second Harvest of Central Florida in 2008 to expand its efforts. The partnership allows the church to purchase large quantities of food at reduced prices to supplement the free food it receives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Aldi’s, Panera Bread, Publix and Pizza Hut, as well as individual donations from the community.

The recession may be over, but the St. Rose of Lima church continues to help feed the hungry every Tuesday.

“We are consistently exceeding the capacity of our current pantry in our attempts to meet the growing unmet needs,” said Pantry Director Robert Doktor.

About a fifth of all Poinciana residents live at or below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A disproportionate number of Poinciana children qualify for the USDA reduced-cost or free lunch program, a signal of poverty and systemic food insecurity, said Cusimano, who cited that nearly all students at Chestnut, Deerwood and Koa elementary schools along with about 70 percent of students at Bellalago Academy qualify for these programs.

The church also feeds about 30 to 50 homeless individuals each Sunday while providing clothing to those in need.

Recipients who visit the pantry come from all walks of life, said church staff, including seniors on fixed incomes raising grandchildren, Hurricane Maria evacuees, the homeless and low-wage working people.

In 2017, church officials realized it was time to expand, and consulted with Valencia Community College’s Architectural Department to identify the organization’s needs before drawing up preliminary designs. Those designs are now awaiting final approval from an architect before making their way through the county zoning and permitting process.

Once complete, the Lima Center will include ample warehouse and distribution space to serve the church’s food mission along with a walk-in freezer and equipment storage area. It will also have a centralized community meeting space, office space for church staff and social workers and a commercial kitchen.

Groundbreaking could happen as early as mid-summer, according to Cusimano, and church officials hope to have the Lima Center open by early 2020.

The new project isn’t cheap, though. Land for the new building was purchased by the Diocese of Orlando and underground infrastructure work for the project is already complete. The St. Rose of Lima parish collected $400,000 for construction and has called on government leaders to chip in, too. State Rep. John Cortes introduced a $900,000 appropriation bill, HB 3449, in March to benefit St. Rose of Lima as soon as July. The project also received $100,000 from Osceola County through grants, and even garnered some federal attention when Congressman Darren Soto named the Lima Center a project priority.

“It’s been such an inspiration to see everyone pull together to make this happen,” Cusimano said. “We’re filling a need and providing help to those who have nowhere else to turn. It’s been amazing to see everyone work together to accomplish that single goal.”