A five-year-old program that helps Florida farmers donate unmarketable fresh produce to needy families has grown steadily since its creation, but still needs more growers.
Founded in 2009, the Farmers Feeding Florida program, administered by the Florida Association of Food Banks (FAFB), collects and ships a wide range of the state’s most common commodities from 45 currently participating growers to a network of 13 regional food banks that are locally funded and community-operated.
The highly successful program is based on a very simple idea.
“There are an awful lot of agricultural products that are grown in Florida, because we are such a huge producer for the country and we have such a long growing season,” said Rebecca Brislain, executive director of FAFB. “And we looked at that fact and said we’ve got people who are in need and yet we have a lot of wholesome products that do not make it to market for any number of reasons, such as appearance. But they are perfectly fine products from a nutritional point of view. So we came up with a way to get those healthy products to people who need them.”
In Florida, about 27 percent of children are “food insecure,” which means they do not know where their next meal is going to come from, Brislain said. “That’s higher than the national average.” About 17 percent of the state’s population is food insecure.
“As an organization, we’ve had a growing demand for food ever since the recession,” Brislain said. “And it has gone up every year. We stabilized somewhat last year, but we’re seeing now that the kinds of jobs people are getting are not the same as they had before. So they’re not making as much money as they did before, so the need is still very much there for what we do. And in many cases, the need is deeper.”
Growers that participate in the Farmers Feeding Florida program donate food and FAFB covers their packaging costs and handles shipping.
“The benefit to growers is that what they love is that they’re not just throwing away products that they’ve invested time and energy in - products that are of high-quality, but just not ‘cosmetically’ suitable for grocery stores,” Brislain said. “So they want that food to go feed hungry people.”
Tommy LaSalle, general manager of Boca Raton-based Thomas Produce Company, a major producer of green peppers, green beans and cucumbers that began participating in the program last year, agreed with Brislain’s assessment.
“The mindset of any farmer is that you hate to see any product go to waste, whether that’s through spoilage or from going to the dump,” LaSalle said. “And like any grower, we have quite a bit of product that is a little bit damaged or has cosmetic defects like a bruise on a cucumber. So if those products can’t be sold to supermarkets, you’re still left with a perfectly edible product that has the same taste as any other product. So we decided to start donating it to a good program.”
If the food were not donated, it would be turned into cattle feed or simply thrown away. And both of those options include out of pocket costs to growers. The Farmers Feeding Florida programs eliminates those costs and reimburses growers for the costs of getting the food to hungry people.
The program is funded by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and private sponsors such as the Mosaic Company Foundation and individual donors.
A special “Imagine” license plate, based on the John Lennon song and featuring Lennon’s iconic portrait artwork, raises about $325,000 each year.
Harry’s Seafood, Bar & Grille, a casual dining restaurant chain with five outlets in northern Florida, creates a special promotion each year that generates ongoing funding for the program.
This year, via a collaboration with Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, Farmers Feeding Florida received a $194,000 specialty crop block grant from the USDA that reimburses FAFB for the acquisition of products from farmers.
Brislain contacted Florida Specialty Crop Foundation and pursued the new USDA grant after hearing anecdotally from a peer in another state that a similar organization there had received such a grant. “Florida Specialty Crop Foundation took the lead on it because they have the experience in pursuing these federal grants,” Brislain said. “We were delighted to get the grant.”
The program wants to recruit more growers to participate.
“I would encourage all growers to find out more about the program and get involved, because it really works for our business,” LaSalle said. “And it’s a great thing for the community because people that are hungry get healthy, nutritious food.”
For more information, call (855) FLA-FOOD or visit HungerFreeFlorida.org.