NO ONE DISPUTES the positive difference Restoration Bridge International makes every Saturday morning in Lake Worth Beach by handing out free supplemental food to thousands of people in need.
Since 2017, RBI volunteers have loaded more than 18 million pounds of produce and dry goods into the open trunks of vehicles in the parking lot of Church by the Glades at 127 South M St. every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Many cars arrive as early as 5 a.m.
But this past year, the need has increased dramatically, putting residents who live around the church on the receiving end of unwanted consequences of the charity’s good deeds — traffic and noise from vehicles clogging nearby roads to receive the food.
It has gotten so bad in recent weeks that complaints from residents in the Downtown Jewell neighborhood have prompted city and county leaders to help RBI find a new distribution spot, one that’s not in the middle of a residential area.
No new location has been found yet, but the city has told RBI that the Saturday morning distributions at Church by the Glades must end.
“It’s a good-intentioned thing that ultimately isn't appropriate for this neighborhood,’’ M Street resident Dan Caleca, who lives two blocks from the church, said late last month as he watched RBI volunteers struggle to guide a line of cars.
“It's providing a great service. It’s helping people. You can't go wrong with that. But this is a residential zone and this’’ — he gestured to the cars crawling past his home — “is like industrial commercial traffic. On a Saturday. Everybody's a little frustrated.’’
Jason Mandle, RBI’s director of operations, said his volunteers do their best to deliver 50,000 pounds of supplemental food into the opened trunks of roughly 1,000 cars, a process that takes about 20 seconds per car, and keep the line moving as quickly as they can for three hours.
He understands why residents are frustrated, but he said the traffic is a reflection of the desperate need for so many people struggling to make ends meet these days. RBI doesn’t want to leave the Church by the Glades parking lot, he said.
“We are bringing food to where it’s needed,’’ he said. “We serve people right on the poverty line.’’
Nearly a quarter of Lake Worth Beach’s population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, a rate among the highest for coastal communities in Palm Beach County. Many residents in and around Lake Worth Beach not living in poverty are still struggling to make ends meet and are part of an economic classification known as ALICE, an acronym for asset limited, income constrained employed, according to the United Way of Palm Beach County.
That’s why charities like RBI serve an important role.
For 20 years, RBI’s food pantry has helped feed 180,000 people a year across the county through distribution partnerships with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, homeless outreach groups and area churches, to name a few.
Each box RBI hands out has enough dry goods, produce, meat and dairy products to feed a family of four for a week. The food is donated by local farmers, commercial groceries like Publix and Costco, charities like FarmShare, Feeding South Florida and the Palm Beach County Food Bank, and others.
RBI stores the food at its Lantana Road warehouse and gives it away on different days each week at pop-up distribution sites from Belle Glade to Jupiter to Boca Raton.
The Church by the Glades parking lot, though just a block from the downtown Lake Worth Beach corridor, is the only large RBI distribution site aside from Belle Glade in a residential area. But the charity's team of volunteers said they try their best to hand out the food as quickly as possible with minimal impact to surrounding homes.
Cars enter the east side of the parking lot and follow four distribution lanes where volunteers at various stations drop boxes into open trunks or hand them to drivers through open windows. The lanes run west across the lot and then are funneled south on L Street into a single lane to the final distribution stations.
It’s been that way since 2017. But this year, the number of people who rely on the Saturday morning food distributions has spiked, Mandle said, and there seems to be no end in sight.
In January 2022, RBI served 300 families there every Saturday. Now, that number has soared to 1,100, he said.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who say, ‘Should I pay rent or get my medicine or get food?’ People are showing up, waiting two or three hours in line for the food we are giving,” he said.
“If you want to see the need, just drive by the church at 5 a.m. on a Saturday and see the cars lining up.’’
Video shows traffic on M Street approaching Church by the Glades on a recent Saturday morning.
By the time the food distribution starts at 9 a.m., the line stretches several blocks down M Street, sometimes as far as Sixth Avenue South.
The vehicles line up on the left shoulder of the northbound one-way road, taking up street parking spots and at times blocking driveways. In some spots, the queue snakes around parked cars and out into the middle of M Street, blocking traffic for motorists trying to head north.
That main queue intersects with another line of cars coming from the west on Second Avenue South and waiting to turn north onto M Street for the final block to the distribution site.
Some drivers, both in the line and passing by, get impatient and vent their frustrations by honking their car horns, disturbing residents trying to sleep in on a Saturday morning.
Tempers flare sometimes.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when RBI continued its tradition of handing out a bonus box with a frozen turkey and holiday trimmings, one passing motorist stopped and blew an air horn at charity volunteers who were trying to direct traffic.
“He cursed me, threatened to mace me,’’ said Will Jones, who leads RBI’s traffic-control volunteers.
PBSO cruiser clears traffic from a street near Church by the Glades on Nov. 18, 2023. (Video by Jason Mandle)
That same morning, a sheriff’s deputy in a cruiser with sirens blaring cleared M Street of traffic. Mandle said that when he approached the deputy for an explanation, “he rolled down the window and said, ‘Sorry, man, the mayor called. I’ve got to do this.’’’
The escalating tensions forced a 45-minute meeting at City Hall three days later, on Nov. 27, between Mandle, RBI board Chairman Tom Nadler, Mayor Betty Resch, City Manager Carmen Davis and an aide for County Commissioner Michael Barnett, who called the meeting and whose district includes downtown Lake Worth Beach.
“I told them (at the meeting), ‘This is getting out of hand,’’’ said Resch, who lives a few blocks from the church and, while not directly impacted by the traffic, hears complaints from neighbors.
“I didn't want to say ‘stop’ because obviously there is a need,’’ she said. “We are trying to find an alternative spot for them in the next couple of weeks because it is just not working anymore in the neighborhood.’’
No one has complained to the city via email this
year, the city clerk said in response to a public records request. Resch said she has received complaints from residents in person and over the phone.
Resch, who is seeking re-election and facing three challengers, said RBI is a wonderful charity that provides a valuable service. During the pandemic, the mayor said, she was among those who lined up every Saturday morning to collect RBI’s free handouts, which she said she picked up for a disabled friend.
Resch said she understands the need and wants to help RBI find a distribtion site with minimal impacts on nearby property owners.
John Prince Memorial Park was suggested, but the county, which owns and operates the park, won’t allow that on a regular basis, Resch said. Another option could be in the industrial district off Boutwell Road.
Barnett said he has asked county officials to “scour” his district for possible distribution spots. One option could be the parking lot of the county Tax Collector’s Office on Military Trail just south of the Lake Worth Corridor, he said.
"Restoration Bridge is a great organization. They provide a service that is needed, and the needs are great. The lines keep getting longer and longer and longer with hundreds and hundreds of families lining up,’’ Barnett said.
“But I understand that people who live close by shouldn't be made to feel they are prisoners in their own homes because they can’t get out due to the heavy traffic.’’
Another option is to move the operation to a spot in another city. Boynton Beach has been mentioned as a possibility.
Some Downtown Jewel residents who’ve complained about the traffic suspect that many of the cars lining up to enter the church are owned by people who don't live in Lake Worth Beach. Mandle said he doesn’t know where the recipients come from but his “best guess” is that 85 percent live in and around Lake Worth Beach.
Video shows eastbound traffic on Second Avenue South approaching M Street on a recent Saturday morning.
Moving out of Church by the Glades in downtown Lake Worth Beach would be “unfortunate,’’ he said, because that’s where the need is.
RBI leaders said they would prefer to stay at Church by the Glades and be given a chance to fix the traffic problems. On Dec. 3, the charity added more volunteers on the streets to direct traffic.
“We understand the faster we get the cars through, the less blockage we will have. We are controlling the variables we can control,’’ Mandle said.
But he suspects city officials have already made up their minds.
“They just don't want us in the city of Lake Worth Beach. We are just not welcome there anymore,’’ he said.
“I really don't know what can be done aside from us taking our show on the road, finding another community that needs the food and wants us there.’’
RBI is welcome in Lake Worth Beach, residents and city officials say, but just not in a residential area.
“It’s super great what they are doing,’’ Victor Seebaran said late last month as watched the traffic from the front of his M Street home, “but there is no organization. It’s very, very uncomfortable. I have to come out and tell people, ‘Hey, I'm trying to leave. Don’t block me.’ They need to have more people out here (directing traffic).’’
Seebaran’s next door neighbor, Maya Smith, said she returns home from her pastry job at The Breakers at 9 a.m. It often takes her 30 minutes just to find a parking place in front of her apartment, she said.
Just before he spoke to a reporter, Seebaran stepped onto the sidewalk to shake the hand of Jones, the RBI traffic volunteer, and thank him for making an effort to fix the problem.
“It looks like they are putting in some work to make it easier on the neighbors. I thank them for that,’’ Caleca said.
But, he added, “It’d be nice if it left, honestly.’’
RBI isn’t the only charity that uses the church’s parking lot on Saturday mornings.
South Florida Sanctuary and the Burrito Project set up on the north end of the lot, giving away hot food and clothes to the homeless while other charities offer haircuts and pop-up showers and laundry facilities. Most of those patrons arrive on foot or bicycle and do not participate in the RBI food distributions.
But even though the homeless charities are not affiliated with RBI, they add to the volume of people in and around the church parking lot on Saturday mornings.
Once RBI moves out, Resch said, the city might talk to Church by the Glades about moving the homeless charities to a location away from the neighborhood.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.