John Alger grows corn but, as nature would have it, not all ears meet the aesthetic demands of the giant grocers he sells to. Isabel Font, who runs a food pantry in Hialeah, says the same corn is quickly picked up by families who want fresh produce but can’t afford grocery store prices.
The link between the two is Homestead-based Farm Share — a food pantry that connects families in need with surplus fruits and vegetables.
“When you go to the store and get a pack of tomatoes, they all look right about the same. Sometimes, if the produce is not the right size, it may not aesthetically be the right color, it has a blemish on it, they don't want it,” said Jinny Botwin, director of operations for Farm Share’s statewide initiative. “We plead with the farmers to give it to us.”
After it arrives on Farm Share’s hands, the fresh produce quickly moves on to a network of about 400 nonprofit organizations throughout the state such as food pantries, soup kitchens and churches.
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“By receiving these types of products, we are able to expand the variety of their food baskets and improve their quality of life,” said Font, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Ozanam food pantry. In cooperation with Farm Share, the pantry was able to feed roughly 4,000 people in the last year.
“They are receiving good, quality products that they would otherwise not be able to eat,” she said.
Farm Share was founded by Patricia Robbins, a retired business owner who started reaching out to farmers with surplus yields and connected them with local charities in 1991.
Since then, tons of fruits, vegetables and other food items that were to be plowed over or tossed to the landfill have landed on the tables of families with food insecurity.
Nonprofits like Ozanam Pantries pick up produce five days a week from one of Farm Share’s four Florida centers including Quincy, Jacksonville, Pompano Beach and Homestead.
Staff and volunteers also drive food to areas where they see the most need, busting out large yellow bins filled with the season’s pickings. In October, for example, Farm Share held two drives in Hialeah.
Inmates from the Florida Department of Corrections help bag the groceries, and volunteers from local schools and other organizations help with packing and distribution.
The nonprofit operates on a $2.8-million budget with 27 staff members throughout the state. Most of its funding comes from local and state grants — which have been threatened over the years — and from cash and produce donations.
Alger, who owns Alger Farms, says that much of what he donates would otherwise end up in a landfill. When the market tides aren’t in his favor, good yields can go to waste.
“The clock ticks after you harvest it,” Alger said. “We don’t stay in business by donating our product, but at a time when there is a market blip, rather than let them go to waste, it seems like a no brainer to donate them.”
Farm Share is filling a hole that many families, and the food organizations that serve them, find difficult to fill — bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the table.
“Produce is often expensive to the people we are giving it to, but this is the nutrition that they need as opposed to just cans and pasta,” Botwin said.
For food pantries, maintaining fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive because of refrigeration needs and transportation costs.
“To Farm Share, nutritious food is worthy of the efforts,” Botwin said.