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Relief Agencies Working to Get More Surplus Produce into the Florida Food Chain

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Tom Flanigan

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has been trying to revive the state's troubled farming sector as its markets have shrunk due to the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile there are also efforts to get more of the state's produce into the food relief pipeline.

Feeding Florida Executive Director Robin Safley said her organization has had plenty of practice when it comes to disasters.

"Back in the day (Hurricanes) Hermine, Matthew, which skirted us, and then Irma and Michael. And what we learned about our system that really was a key player in many of those natural disasters was that we have the capability of ramping up our capacity almost 300 percent in order to respond."

Although Safley conceded this is not like any hurricane the state has experienced.

"I think we all know this is a marathon and we're definitely trying to stay well. But I think the biggest concern if we have one would be the flow of food. Obviously this is not just a localized issue. It's a national and global issue, so everyone's pushing on the same supply chain."

Also, much of the market for the state's grown produce has collapsed as restaurants restrict their sales to take-out. Reports abound of Florida fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields for lack of buyers. So Feeding Florida is trying to keep producers in business.

"So what I'm going to be working on is creating a pool of money, whether it's philanthropic or in combination with government, to fund our program where we can help alleviate some of the product that's in the fields. And then I'm working with some partners where we would be able to bring that product in and value-add by cutting it, dicing it, perhaps cooking, sealing and freezing it so we can increase its shelf life," said Safley, adding that much of that excess product can be diverted into food relief channels.

"They are pushing additional dollars onto EBT cards and they're also lowering the threshold for who can qualify for SNAP so we'll have some of that money in the engine. If we can keep schools (food services) operating there are after school meals programs out there run by the Department of Health that allows for two meals a day. During school there's the summer feeding program that is operational now and I'm confident it will be continued."

Many of the people needing food, noted Monique Ellsworth, who heads Second Harvest of the Big Bend are newcomers.

"This is going to absolutely devastate our entire region and people who have never needed assistance before will find themselves in a position they've never been," she predicted.

And Ellsworth credited Safley's organization for keeping the fruits and vegetables flowing to those who need it. "We're getting a lot of produce coming in from farms, which is really wonderful because we're part of the statewide Feeding Florida network we have a lot of opportunity to identify farmers who are all around the state. So here we are in Leon County and our region only allows us to touch so many local farms. The produce that's being grown in South Florida is able to make its way up here because of our large network."

Which is certainly a better use of that resource than letting it rot in the fields because commercial use is down so drastically.