Charitable non-profit group discovers growing community support, thanks to a worthwhile cause and some help from “60 Minutes.”

Tom Brannigan founded the Green Bag Project as a small non-profit program to help hungry families, but with strong business support, the program has grown dramatically. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

FOUR CORNERS – Tom Brannigan recalls the crew from “60 Minutes” that contacted him last year, interested in interviewing families living in hotels on U.S. 192.
“They wanted to follow some families on 192 for three days,” including their children, said Brannigan.
But officials with the Osceola County school system balked, he noted, and the “60 Minutes” crew went to Seminole County instead.
“The school was concerned,” Brannigan said. “They were worried about bad press. I think they were concerned about some Disney-bashing – you know, the happiest place on Earth.”
As it turns out, the segment that “60 Minutes” produced – about families so badly hurt by the recession, they had been forced to live in local hotel rooms because they could no longer afford a house or apartment – put the spotlight on a painful issue, and helped Brannigan enormously. Far from being negative publicity, it turned out to be free advertising for his central mission: to feed hungry children in Osceola and Polk counties.
“Certainly ‘60 Minutes’ did open a lot of eyes,” said Brannigan. “It was (filmed) in Kissimmee and Seminole County. That really got people’s attention.”
Brannigan is the founder and director of the Green Bag Project, a program based at 1503 Legends Drive in ChampionsGate, which collects and distributes food to needy families. It started modestly more than a year ago, with volunteers dropping off green shopping bags in local neighborhoods, with notes attached asking people to put any spare food they could offer inside it. The bags were collected, and the food was given to local food pantries.
“Basically it’s an easy sell,” he said. “When you talk to most adults about kids in their neighborhoods who don’t have adequate food, they just respond, they really do. And now we’ve set up a Paypal account on our web site that people can donate to.” The web site is www.green-bag-project.org.
From that modest start, the Green Bag Project has grown considerably, helped by the fact that a rising number of business organizations have signed on to assist Brannigan. One of them is the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, a trade group representing the fast-growing number of vacation homes in Osceola and Polk counties, where fully furnished homes are rented to tourists on a short term basis as they visit the region and local theme parks.
The CFVRMA adopted Green Bag Project as its charitable cause for the entire year, and urges members to support the non-profit program at each of its monthly meetings.
“Every month, they get approximately 100 people who attend their meetings, so it’s re-discussed every month,” Brannigan said. “We get the proceeds from that support, and it’s substantial.”
“The Green Bag Project is a fantastic project,” said Colin Young, president of the CFVRMA. “The more money we can get for them, the better.”
Michael Eckersley, a member of the CFVRMA who runs Sunsplash Vacation Homes in Davenport, said this is a really worthwhile cause that deserves its support.
“In addition, the Davenport-Four Corners Kiwanis Club is very involved in it as well, nicely involved,” Eckersley said.
That kind of strong business support enabled the Green Bag Project to launch a major achievement today when the non-profit opened four summer feeding locations on U.S. 192. These are special locations where kids can stop by to get a free lunch.
“It just opened today,” Brannigan said. “It’s a 10 week program, Monday through Friday.”
The locations include Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Thacker Avenue in Kissimmee, and on U.S. 192, Rock Church and the Vacation Lodge Maingate, “which is a hotel, and there are a fair number of homeless kids living there,” Brannigan said.
A second hotel on U.S. 192, Home Suites Home, also agreed to participate.
“There are about 70 homeless kids living there,” Brannigan said. “We opened one at the conference room there. These are walk-in feeding stations. Kids under 18 walk in, no questions asked, and we feed them lunch. This is a lunchtime program. It’s for 10 weeks. The only requirement is they be 18 or younger. We don’t ask any questions. There’s no qualifications. Literally any kid that walks in gets fed.”
Cold lunches are served on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while hot lunches get served on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“The focus to some degree is on the kids living in the extended stays (hotels and motels) on U.S. 192,” Brannigan said. “It’s going to take time for the word to spread among the kids. Obviously the public doesn’t know we did this.”
Brannigan is hoping the teens themselves help sell the program, the old-fashioned way.
“We expect to get up to something in the range of 70 to 100 kids at each site each day,” he said. “We worked very closely with the staff at Westside Elemetary School on this. They have over 300 homeless kids at their schools.”
Westside is on the Osceola County side of U.S. 192 in Four Corners.
“We’ve got people that actually go into the hotels and see if there are kids living there, and leave a flyer that says ‘Free lunch at Maingate,’ “ Brannigan said. “The kids will talk to other kids. Those kids will come eat, and it’s pretty much word of mouth.”
Brannigan also expects the staff at Holy Redeemer Church to make announcements about the program during Sunday masses, and noted that Rock Church already has a large food pantry.
“It’s very active with the low income community,” Brannigan said.
Green Bag also partnered with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which is sending 3,000 pre-wrapped packages to Brannigan. Those packages will be given to low income students who may be getting fed at school, but don’t get much food at home over the weekends because their parents have very little money.
“On Friday when they finish their lunch, they can take these snacks home with them over the weekends,” he said.
Green Bag also has a storage unit at Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192.
“We’ve been storing food over there,” he said. “We’re looking like we’ll be in good shape for the start of the school year.”
All of this, he said, has helped the once-tiny non-profit grow and achieve its central mission: to help feed the needy.
“It’s taking off,” he said.

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