NORTH PORT — Angela Engel waits 11 months each year to eat a plate full of specially made string beans served from Antonio Pereira’s food truck the day before Thanksgiving.
“They are so good,” said Engel, who barely has enough time to stop and eat a meal during the morning-long giveaway.
Engel is the leader of the Awaken Food Pantry.
“We are so blessed to have Antonio and his family and staff come to Awaken and feed the masses,” she said. “They made enough for 300 today.”
Pereira owns Savor 100x35 Food Truck in North Port. The 100x35 are the measurements of the island of Puerto Rico. He uses it as a way to speak to people about the cultural food he serves. However, for the past three years, the hot holiday meals he serves at the food pantry include a traditional turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy.
“Awaken is my family,” he said. “I go to this church. These are my people. God has been good to me. I started my business with a little truck. I made it through the pandemic and the hurricane. I have a very successful business now and God called me to give back to the community where I live.”
Leading up to the pre-Thanksgiving meal, Awaken volunteers loaded hundreds of bags of food into 1,100 vehicles helping more than 2,650 residents just days earlier. Residents received a $10 Publix gift card or a turkey meal.
Awaken Food Pantry is the only one left in North Port giving meals on a regular basis. The Salvation Army building in North Port was destroyed during Hurricane Ian in September. Some churches that had pantries suffered damage and haven’t come back.
As a result, Awaken volunteers have seen the increase in need quadrupled. They opened days after the storm. They cut trees and cleared away debris and began giving cleaning supplies, food, bedding, gift cards and anything else that arrived.
Pantry manager Larry Grant and his team arrived early every morning to set up for the giveaways. Despite his home suffering major damage, Grant worked for weeks before he was ordered a day off to rest and begin working on his own yard and home.
Grant said the semi trucks just kept arriving at the pantry, 4940 Pan American Blvd. in North Port. Grant said a New Jersey youth group sent teens to help at Awaken.
“We were able to serve 3,500 hot meals, we partnered with Laurel Civic Center, Red Cross, World Central Kitchen, Culvers, Zio’s Twelve 21 Pizzeria & Restaurant, Beef O’ Brady’s and All Faiths Food Bank. it was just so many it was amazing,” he said. “We had Jesus Loves You Ministry show trailer out there and their case worker, Convoy of Hope, Mother’s Helping Mothers, On the Spot medical care, Operation Compassion and All Faith’s Food Bank. It was amazing.”
It was amazing how many supplies came in from all over the U.S., he added.
“Georgia, Alabama, New Jersey, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and everywhere in between,” Grant said. “They were constantly calling me telling me they had supplies coming in. In 10 days, we had 65 box trucks and 20 tractor trailers come in for our volunteers to hand out.”
Grant said more than 20,000 residents received help, new mattresses, clothing, personal goods and food from the aid sent to the food pantry after the hurricane.
Now, the team is collecting toys or gift cards for children to teenagers for Christmas.
“We know there’s a huge need,” Engel said. “We know people have lost everything and are rebuilding. They are working with their insurance companies or FEMA and they just won’t have a good Christmas this year if we can’t help them.”
Engel said she plans on hunting for bargains on Black Friday for cool toys for children.
“Last year, we gave away hundreds of toys,” she said. “This year, I think it will be thousands. We really hope to get toys for older kids ages 10 to 14. We can help the ones who are 15 through 17 on a case-by-case basis.”
Toys will be given away Friday, Dec. 16 at the Awaken Food Pantry. Families don’t have to sign up for the toys.
Toy collection bins are at Zio’s Twelve 21 Pizzeria & Restaurant, 1221 S Sumter Blvd., Seeport Ophthalmology, 4381 Aidan Lane, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, 1037 North Sumter Blvd., all in North Port, and Awaken Church, 390 Flamingo Blvd., Port Charlotte, and Living Waters Church, 12475 Chancellor Blvd. in Port Charlotte, and at the food pantry at 4949 Pan American Blvd.