STORIES BY JOSHUA LESTER

The Unnoticed World Photography Blog

Published: December 8, 2020

Website: theunnoticedworld.wordpress.com

Fighting Hunger in Northeast Florida

Published. Nov. 9, 2020

Video

When the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the United States in March, Bellwether’s business, like many restaurants, came to a grinding halt. Bellwether did not simply close their dining halls and board up their windows. Instead, Jon Insetta, co-owner of Bellwether, began looking for ways to help. 

“I emailed the president, Susan King, of Feeding Northeast Florida that Sunday just trying to figure out what we can do positively in such a negative time,” said Insetta.

King put together a plan, which involved sending donated produce to Bellwether to then be assembled into meals that could be distributed to the community. 

“I’m really proud of what my co-workers did – really proud of what everyone did,” said Insetta.

Bellwether puts together over 1,000 meals every week for Project SHARE. Photo by Joshua Lester.

TPC Sawgrass was one of the first events canceled due to COVID-19. The enormous amount of food that was prepared for the four-day event was donated to Feeding Northeast Florida. The need to come up with a plan for distributing that food led to the creation of Project SHARE. 

Bellwether and Florida Blue were the first participants of the project. Before long, an additional eight restaurants participated.

Many senior residential facilities had to close down their food service, so providing them food quickly became the project’s primary focus. 

From there, Project SHARE relied on excess food from restaurants and foodservice purveyors to continue its operations.

“It taught us that it is possible and well-needed to do something like this,” said Rachel McCandless, Director of Health and Nutrition at Feeding Northeast Florida. 

McCandless heads Project SHARE and has plans for a version of the project to become permanent. It would provide “not only standard meals but therapeutic meals.” This consists of meals designed for those with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart failure.

“The idea is that we will take what we are doing here with Project SHARE and re-envision it as an expanded program,” says McCandless.

Feeding Northeast Florida received support for this project not only in the form of helping hands but also payroll. 

The local farm Congaree and Pen pays the salary for four of their employees to work as warehouse staff for Feeding Northeast Florida. Florida Blue also pays the salary of over 40 members of its food service staff to work for the nonprofit. 

Additionally, Feeding Northeast Florida has been able to use sourced donations from local foundations to pay the workers of other restaurants taking part in the project, employing many restaurant workers who otherwise would have been out of a job.

Feeding Northeast Florida distributed over 14M meals in 2018. Photo courtesy of Feeding Northeast Florida.

Providing meals for the elderly is something Insetta describes as an ongoing need but represents only 15% of those Feeding Northeast Florida aids in their work. 

322,300 people in Northeast Florida rely on food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families, according to a 2014 study by Feeding Northeast Florida and Feeding America. 

“20% of our Northeast Florida residents are food-insecure,” says McCandless. “That’s your neighbor. That’s people that often have to choose: am I going to spend my money on medication or food.”

McCandless describes food insecurity as a symptom of many systemic societal problems like poverty and inequality. She explains that COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue, with many people now needing food assistance for the first time. 

Food insecurity is a lagging indicator of the economy, said McCandless. Food security was just getting back to baseline level within the last couple of years from the 2008 recession, she says. So, McCandless expects the effects of this pandemic to linger for years. 

Given that hunger will represent a sustained concern into the future, McCandless stresses the need for more young volunteers and the importance of organizations like Feeding Northeast Florida, which can help as many people as possible. 

“When we give people food, we give them hope,” says McCandless.

The Rise and Fall of LaVilla

Published: Oct. 5, 2020

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You could find Genovar’s Hall on the eastern side of LaVilla. What started as a grocery store had evolved into a hotel and jazz club, and regularly hosted talents like Louis Armstrong.

Travel west down Ashley Street and you’d arrive at The Strand Theatre. It was the first movie house in this segregated African American community and soon became one of LaVilla’s primary performance venues, specializing in vaudeville productions. 

Just a few blocks away, highlighted by its bright red, neon sign, was the newly opened Ritz Theatre, a movie house and hub for local business, with many storefronts located adjacent to the theater.

The year was 1930 and “The Harlem of the South” had taken shape.

 But it didn’t stay that way.

The Ritz Theatre and Museum, located on Davies street in the heart of LaVilla.

The construction of I-95 split LaVilla and Durkeeville, stifling commerce and housing value on either side. The decline of the railroad industry led to substantial employment loss. Once segregation was lifted, many of the more economically fortunate in the community left the neighborhood to pursue better opportunities. 

LaVilla never recovered. 

The renowned Genovar’s Hall now rests on Ashley Street, a skeleton of its former self, abandoned, with no restoration plan in place. The Strand burned down in 1969, shortly after closing its doors for good. The Ritz is the only prominent building that truly survived LaVilla’s decline and it too was almost demolished. 

The River City Renaissance project, which stretched its resources from Brooklyn to the Sports Complex, saved and fully restored the Ritz Theatre in 1999.

The Ritz, now both a performance venue and museum, represents a lost history of the once vibrant LaVilla neighborhood.