What’s for dinner? In this series, meet Northwest Floridians and find out how their dinner plate looks different than yours and why. From the gluten-free Huwa family to the vegan Holliday/Browning family, find out what factors determine our diet.
Editor’s note: In this series, meet Northwest Floridians and find out how their dinner plate looks different than yours and why.
Ellen Bryant doesn’t turn down food.
She can’t. It’s not always around.
Bryant considers herself “semi-homeless,” only temporarily living with an elderly couple after experiencing homelessness for the past two years.
She averages a meal a day, usually one she walks over to pick up from Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen ministry at Trinity United Methodist Church in Fort Walton Beach.
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“I’m grateful for whatever they have,” Bryant said. “Even if it’s not something I’m particularly fond of, I take it anyway. Maybe if I don’t like it, the people that live with me may like it. If neither one of us likes it, we can find someone who eats it.
“I never turn anything down as food. I never thought I would be this way. I never thought I would drop this low.”
Some days, she doesn’t eat at all.
Bryant is a certified nurse by trade but can’t work because she is disabled, she said.
“I have holes all through my bones, my skeleton and it’s nothing that can be repaired,” Bryant said. “I’m constantly in pain. Me going out and trying to work in the profession I’m certified to do – I can’t.”
Our Daily Bread is Bryant’s main source of food – sometimes clothing, too. The food and clothes are donated or purchased with a fund collected at the church. She most often eats the sandwiches and hot dogs the ministry provides but can’t wait for the hot meals to return.
“Imma tell you, these people here can cook,” Bryant said. “Oh, my gosh, it be so good. They have this lasagna they do and potato ham soup. They really know what they’re doing in the kitchen.”
Alvin Benson, who is experiencing homelessness, also visits Our Daily Bread daily for sandwiches and clothes. He has gone there as his main source of food for a year, along with other local churches and nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities and Sharing & Caring.
“I’ve struggled a lot of times trying to find food,” Benson said. “Some days they don’t give out food. Saturdays and Sundays are the hard days.”
The ministry goes beyond food.
Bryant has a lot of love for the volunteers, she said.
“The people are so nice and so warm,” Bryant said. “If you can’t get it on your own, they will help – and they don’t charge anything. They’re wonderful.”
Bryant remembers one day she came for a sit-in lunch. And, for one day, for one lunch, she existed.
“I was sick one day, and I sat there, and they paid attention to me,” Bryant said. “They kept asking me, ‘Are you doing OK?’ It felt so good that they noticed me. I had a seizure. They took care of me and checked on me afterward. It’s not like they’re just here to hand the food out and the clothes; they’re here to help.”
Sit-in lunches are her favorite.
“It’s almost like a restaurant,” Bryant said. “You had salad. You had dessert. You had the main course. And you could go back and get as much as you want. And if you there before they close, whatever’s left, they hand out for you to take back to your family.”
Bryant always takes three lunches, two of them for the couple with whom she is living and one for herself.
“I always take them back lunch because I care about if they eat, too,” Bryant said. “They’re elderly, so they can’t come out like I can. They can’t walk all the way up the road or ride a bike, so I do it for them. They look forward to it every day.”
No, Bryant doesn’t turn down food. But some food she wouldn’t turn down – even if she could afford to.
Stewby’s Seafood Shanty immediately comes to mind. She ate there once with her son while he was visiting from Anchorage, Alaska.
“I kept saying, ‘I want to try that. It smells so good when we pass it,’” Bryant said. “I passed by there one day, and he said, ‘We’re not passing. We’re going in there.’ He treated me to shrimp. Everything that was on the plate – I killed myself in there trying to eat it. It was wonderful.
“Every time I pass by there, that memory comes back to me. Every time I pass by there, that smell, ‘Ahhh, oh, my gosh.’”
It’s a distant memory now – several park benches ago, vacant buildings ago. She never thought she would sleep under Brooks Bridge.
Turning homeless made Bryant look at people differently – at life differently, too, she said. But, at her core, she believes she deserves it. She sees it as God’s punishment for who she was before.
“I was at a point in my life at one time (where) I would drive by people in my car going to my house,” Bryant said. “They’re standing there and asking for food and I come out of the store and they’ll ask me, ‘You don’t have to give me money; just give me something to eat.’ And I turned my back on them.
“I feel like God has a way of chastising people. Maybe if he brings me down low enough to where I’m one of the people that needs that help, I would know how they feel – the people I passed up that needed help. That’s being real.
“Now I know how it feels. You can’t talk about it unless you know how it feels. I’m there now. And it doesn’t feel good.”