Farm Share’s big red truck is a sign of hope for many in some of Florida’s poorest areas, where fruits and vegetables — even green beans, squash and eggplant — are a luxury.
Last year, Farm Share, a Homestead-based nonprofit that distributes fresh produce and federal food packages throughout Florida free of charge, provided more than $40 million in food to more than one million families. Using inmate labor and volunteers at four facilities, it collects, sorts, packs and distributes food to individuals and more than 700 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior centers, veterans groups and churches, among other charitable organizations.
Farm Share relies on grants and local farmers and brokers who donate produce that fails to meet market conditions because of size, shape or blemishes.
“By tapping into a vast supply of donated produce, we keep our costs low, while providing fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious food to the hungry and food insecure free of charge,” Farm Share Operations Manager Virginia R. Botwin said.
The Health Foundation of South Florida recently awarded Farm Share a $65,000 grant, which the organization plans to use to purchase a fifth new refrigerated trailer to expand its operations.
But a new administrative proposal from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services could stall its mission.
Since 1991, Farm Share has retained a contract to distribute federal food, including meat, poultry and canned goods, through the USDA’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), in addition to the produce. Farm Share is one of only two organizations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties (the other is Feeding South Florida) that currently distributes the federal food.
The existing program has 16 contracts with organizations such as Farm Share and serves all 67 counties in Florida. The new plan seeks to create seven regions throughout the state with only one organization holding the contract per region. The bidding process would be competitive, and contracts would last four years at a time.
Farm Share founder Patricia Robbins recently visited Tallahassee to lobby for a halt to the plan, backed by a resolution signed by Miami-Dade County commissioners and a letter of support from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
Robbins grew up on a farm in Central Florida, where her family owned a seafood business. She launched Farm Share in 1991 with a spiral notebook, making calls to local farmers after seeing good produce thrown away because it didn’t meet standards cosmetically. Years later, she’s still driven by the people she helps.
“Operating a fresh produce charity is much more difficult than running a for-profit business,” Robbins said. “You don’t have anything to sell, so you depend on the generosity of others. It is so difficult you wonder why you do it. Then when you see the faces of the elderly and children standing in line for food, you know you must have been put on this earth to do exactly this. Those faces, they are with you always.”
Robbins said the TEFAP food is essential to Farm Share. While fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet, struggling individuals and families count on the additional food to get by.
“It would take us $15 [million] to $18 million annually to replace the federal food. That could really sink our ship and take away something that has been part of our program for 23 years. It would be a huge blow for the poor communities in Florida if Farm Share went away,” Robbins said.
A representative for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said that the new plan will not affect the volume of food available and that it is designed to make the process more efficient. In addition, agencies will have the option to serve as sub-distributors even if they don’t receive the contract.
“The department recently evaluated the Emergency Food Assistance Program’s distribution of food and determined a regional distribution approach is in the best interest of the state and the recipients,” said Erin Gillespie, press secretary for Commissioner Adam H. Putnam. “The goal of the new approach is to maximize federal funds; guarantee greater efficiencies with food storage capacity, distribution of food and resource planning; and reach as many eligible Florida households as possible.”
The effects of the new plan could trickle down to other charitable organizations as well.
Ministerio de Restauracion Nueva Esperanza, a certified agent of Farm Share for nearly two years, feeds approximately 100 families per month in Miami-Dade County, according to Jose M. Garcia, Ministerio’s founder and CEO.
Stephen Smith of the American Veteran Food Assistance said his group feeds 800 to 1,200 people monthly, many veterans and their families.
“It would impact us incredibly. With Farm Share, you place the order and they come and deliver it free of charge,” Smith said.
Gillespie said whichever organizations are awarded the contracts, the distributors would not be allowed to charge fees to obtain TEFAP food. The agriculture department will award new contracts by September, when the current TEFAP contracts expire.