On a Friday morning, cars line up at the Advantage Village Academy (AVA) food distribution program, where the staff provides boxes of fresh produce, eggs, and other proteins for the week. At the end of the day, Toriano Parker and his staff of four plan for next week’s food distribution.
Food-pickup day at this South St. Petersburg pantry always buzzes with drive-thru and walk-up traffic. The day is filled with residents hit hardest by COVID-19. They are low- to moderate-income families (under $16,000 for a family of four) whose basic needs routinely outstrip the services offered by the greater community.
AVA helped stave off hunger for many residents in this underserved area. In similar parts of Pinellas County, AVA delivered food boxes provided for distribution by six partner organizations, including Clearwater’s Uncommon Touch Ministries, Largo’s Shiloh Ministries, and groups at Burlington Towers and Arlington Arbors.
The exported food was transported from AVA’s home base at 945 62nd Avenue S. in U-Haul trucks, rented and driven by AVA staff. Even shut-ins were sustained through the week, as home deliveries were made each Friday to low-income seniors and disabled residents who have little to no grocery access.
AVA’s good works were thanks to a $600,000 grant made in September 2020, by the Pinellas CARES Nonprofit Partnership Fund distributed through the Pinellas Community Foundation.
Toriano said that in addition to the funding, the program would not be possible without his extraordinary staff. While AVA presently has no volunteers, he hopes some will emerge to help its ongoing meal program.
Besides food distribution, AVA commemorates special days with added services in this predominantly black area of St. Petersburg, said Toriano, 48, the founder and force behind AVA. On the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for example, Toriano and his staff assembled donated blankets, toiletries, and other provisions for the homeless in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr.
Split the Fries
Toriano knows the zip codes in the AVA service area well. He grew up in South St. Petersburg’s subsidized housing, the fourth of five children raised by a single mom. His mother taught him the value of a helping hand and the importance of giving back. Each sibling finished college with financial assistance, even as an uncle never finished elementary school.
“We would go to McDonald’s, and we were poor as hell,” he said, recalling that his mother bought food for others, requiring him to split French fries with his siblings. She would say, “Did you see their faces? They have not eaten in a long time.”
He remembers her taking care of other people, even as they struggled to make ends meet. “It never made sense to me until later.”
Even Toriano’s name offers a clue to the formative years when her values took root. “Did you know that Tito Jackson’s real name is Toriano?” he mused.
Service to others is why Toriano left corporate America in 2003 to reemerge in the black community where he was raised. It is also why he and AVA were positioned to receive the $600,000 grant to expand its food program and open a broader scope food bank.
The grant from The Pinellas CARES Nonprofit Partnership Fund was made possible through an agreement in August 2020 between Pinellas County and Pinellas Community Foundation. The agreement made $30 million in CARES ACT funding available through Pinellas Community Foundation to nonprofits serving food, behavioral health, and legal aid for those threatened by eviction during the pandemic.
“I never really thought I could do this,” said Toriano, referring to AVA’s capacity to reach so many people of color affected by the COVID-19 virus. The $600,000 grant not only expanded AVA’s staff but also transformed its hot meal service to a weekly food pantry and an expansive food bank.
Will You Be My Neighbor?
Founded in 2008 by Toriano, AVA educates, empowers, and enhances the quality of life for individuals to promote self-sufficiency, financial stability, and economic development. AVA provides supervision and guidance to many of the disadvantaged and deprived youth within the local vicinity.
Recalling his family struggles and organizational skills learned at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, and his former job at Equifax, Toriano innately knew how to tap into the needs of the black community, and to do so with minimal invasion of privacy.
To document the need, and in support of the grant, he surveyed AVA’s clients by asking simple generic questions: How many in your household? What is your zip code? Is there an elderly person or someone with special needs living with you?
Many of AVA’s clients were already visiting a larger food pantry that serves the entire Tampa Bay. “We were already neighbors of the people we serve,” he said. “They come in to use our fax machine, and for other reasons, so we see them all the time,” he said. “It was nothing to get people to come to us as a food source.”
Since AVA is not a government agency and does not keep track of names, AVA gained their trust, he said. The distinction is important since many feared losing government assistance. “Do the math,” Toriano said. “The SNAP program provides $5 a day, so if you eat breakfast, you don’t get lunch or dinner.”
Toriano’s vision was to create the AVA food pantry at the grassroots level and to serve as a food bank for partner organizations that, in turn, served their neighborhoods in a grassroots fashion.
Opening the Curtain
With the help of Pinellas Community Foundation staff, David Bender, Director of Grants and Operations, and Cheri Wright-Jones, CARES Act grant manager, Toriano refined his grant writing skills to advance his vision. He then applied for $197,000 from The Pinellas CARES Nonprofit Partnership Fund. AVA’s efficiency and service capacity were so effective that AVA was granted additional funding that totaled $600,000.
Pulling back the curtain and identifying the unseen need is what propelled AVA forward. AVA had already been serving hot meals over the summer when it occurred to Toriano that families needed a longer-term food solution. “Our families came to our meals again, a day or two later, so we asked, ‘What causes you to come back so soon?” The answer… they needed more than a hot meal for that day.
The more Toriano and his staff asked, the better their program became, he said. “We wanted to understand what would give a hand up and not just hand out, so we could provide something that would give a hand up for more than a day.”
After applying for the grant in late August, they received funding in mid-September and the money arrived in October. Each grant requires accountability, including periodic financial and spending reports.
“We knew we needed help, so we thought maybe someone would consider a little guy like us,” he said. The Pinellas Community Foundation and The Pinellas CARES Nonprofit Partnership Fund were the someone they needed. By the program’s end on December 31, AVA’s food pantry and food bank served 63,000 family members.
COVID-19 Job Loss Led Her to the AVA Food Program
As the pandemic raged, Veronica Jones lost her housekeeping job at a local beach resort and scrambled to find another job. Then, wham! In December 2020, she caught COVID-19 and became too ill to work.
Veronica and her grandchildren often faced an empty table when food stamps failed to provide enough meals to last the week. Then, she heard about the food program at AVA. “I had never heard of a place where you can get food like they offer,” she said. “The food is amazing. I was used to canned food, not fresh produce like collard greens.”
Ecstatic about the meat choices, Ronnie said, “I even got beef for spaghetti,” adding that there was enough to last the entire week.