Retiree devoted to serving local food-insecure population

Vickie Leese, left, prepares to hand out food in Flagler Estates. Photo by Chloe Smith

By Chloe Smith

Vickie Leese views her volunteering as something greater than just handing out food to the impoverished of St. Johns County. When working with Epic Cure to fight local food insecurity, Leese said the people she helps become something else entirely to her: family.

“At the warehouse, everybody calls me grandma, and they hug me. I hand out cookies to the kids … they know I remember them,” Leese said. “I remember everything about their family.”

For the last four months, Leese has directed her Epic Cure efforts toward an unincorporated community- Flagler Estates — in the woods just outside Hastings, Florida, building relationships and providing necessary food for those in need.

“She has this amazing ability to remember what people tell her. So the next time she sees them, she goes, “Well, how’s your mom?’ Or ‘how’s your uncle?’ Or ‘how’s your son?’ ‘How’s your daughter?’ ‘How’s your husband?’ And so I think that’s a big part of it,” David Rice, husband of Leese, said. “And, so, people gravitate toward that because they realize, ‘Wow, she really does care.’”

Welcoming everyone she encounters with open arms, a warm smile, and the most contagious laugh, senior Vickie Leese has dedicated her life to helping food-insecure individuals in St. Johns County. 

One of the wealthiest counties in Florida, known for its beaches, historic charm, and unique landmarks, St. Johns County is home to a food-insecure population of nearly 20,000, according to Feeding America. 

As prices rise across the country, food insecurity is becoming a more pressing issue.

In 2021, an estimated 2.3 million Florida residents were determined food-insecure, with over 613,000 being children, according to Feeding America.

“I can’t see the need and not try to do something, especially when it comes to children,” Leese said.

Since 2018, Leese has spent almost all her time supporting the local food-insecure population with Epic Cure.

“She’s got a heart that beats for people… cares about people. It’s a passion,” Rice said. 

The nonprofit Epic Cure, based in St. Augustine, Florida, is a food bank and food pantry that combats food insecurity through food rescue and distribution. Currently, Epic Cure rescues close to 600,000 pounds of food monthly and provides free groceries to about 2,200 families weekly, according to co-founder and executive director Sunny Mulford. 

“This is why I knew about poverty, because of her,” Mulford said, referring to Leese as she introduced Epic Cure to the significant food-insecure population living in the woods of Flagler Estates.

Before she started volunteering, Leese was one of the many St. Johns County residents oblivious to local food insecurity.

“I’ve lived in this house for sixteen years. The first ten years… I got in my car and drove to Jacksonville to work every day and back. I never went across to the west side of St. Augustine. I never went to Flagler Estates. I never saw anything,” Leese said. “All I saw was nice houses downtown, people vacationing, having fun… I never knew. I never ever had a clue.”

For 30 years, Leese ran Woodchuck’s Fine Furniture and Decor in Jacksonville, Florida. It was not until her late husband developed cancer that she resigned and began her journey as a caregiver. 

“All of a sudden, I was a caregiver. I had time, but I was finding out through the church… the needs. And the schools. And the kids. And the parents. And I just couldn’t stop,” Leese said.

She and Rice have been married for almost six years and have been finding ways to support those in need in St. Johns County since.

David Rice unloads an Epic Cure truck to prepare for food distribution on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Flagler Estates, Fla. Photo taken by Chloe Smith.

“We just get a kick out of doing it. And we’re retired. But we have retired friends that are constantly like, ‘Okay, what do we do today?’ We don’t have that problem,” Rice said. “Because every day there’s something that we’re doing.”

Besides distributing food to the food-insecure populations of St. Johns County, Leese and Rice also volunteer with their church, Regeneration Fellowship, at Gamble Rogers Middle School, mentoring students and providing for teachers.

“There’s, for lack of a better word, a euphoria, a sense of we’re making a difference,” Rice said. “And I think compassion is a commodity that, in many ways, is lacking.”

Now, Leese concentrates on food distributions in Flagler Estates, where Epic Cure and another nonprofit, The Simon’s House, partner to serve the food-insecure population.

Vickie Leese, left, and Stephanie Simon take a break after setting up food distribution for the Flagler Estates community on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, outside Hastings, Fla. Photo taken by Chloe Smith.

“I get real emotional about it, but I feel like somebody took the scale off my eyes,” Leese said.

In addition to volunteering with Epic Cure daily, Leese takes her grandchildren downtown twice a month to give purses filled with feminine hygiene products and gift cards to homeless women. And, every Thanksgiving morning, it’s guaranteed Leese will be outside, handing donuts and hot coffee out to those living on the streets. 

“She has this amazing capacity… I think it’s because of her size and her spirit… people open up and let her into their lives,” Rice said. 

Volunteering has ignited a fire in Leese, and she hopes that more community members will join in on the fight against food insecurity in St. Johns County.

“I just would give anything if I could take, especially young people now, who are now growing up and put them in the woods with us just one day. You don’t have to give me a week, you don’t have to give me a month, just one afternoon,” Leese said. “I don’t think you could ever walk away and not want to grow up to do something different. That’s what I see.”

For as long as she’s got air in her lungs, Leese intends to spend her life abundantly caring for those in need.

“I used to just drive through. And, now, I can’t drive through. I can’t. I can’t,” Leese said. “There’s no way. So, it’s just different. It’s life-changing…  it’s my passion.”

To learn more about Vickie Leese or how to help those experiencing food insecurity, visit

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