Connecting Florida’s bounty with those in need

A win-win for farmers and the hungry

– The Florida Association of Food Banks is committed to helping its members, 14 food banks in Florida that are affiliated with Feeding America, end hunger in the state.

Those food banks partner with more than 3,000 faith-based and nonprofit agencies helping to meet the daily needs of people who struggle with hunger throughout all of Florida’s 67 counties.

Robin Safley, formerly with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, became FAFB’s executive director last December. She has big plans for the association, and Florida farmers will play a major part through the organization’s Farmers Feeding Florida program.

About 3.2 million people in Florida are food insecure, and 1 million of them are children.  Food insecurity is defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Research shows that children who are hungry or lack a healthy diet struggle academically and have more of a chance of being obese.

Floridians are extremely fortunate in that the state is so robust agriculturally, Safley says, producing more than 300 commodities. She is committed to connecting Florida’s abundance with those in need.

Whether it’s weather or market conditions, circumstances sometimes make produce unmarketable. But it’s still fit for consumption. That’s where FAFB comes in. “Between 16 and 23 percent of product that’s grown never makes it into the supply chain,” Safley said. “Either the retail market shifts and it’s no longer cost-effective to harvest, or the product is not marketable because it is cosmetically blemished.  So we work with the farmers to find a home for it.”

Safley is looking for ways to expand the Farmers Feeding Florida program. “We want to bring more farmers into our conversation and partnership,” she said.

The Florida Legislature allocates money every year to FAFB and Safley says much of that funding is used to defray costs of grower/shippers to pick and pack donated produce. “That’s helpful because although there are tax breaks at the national level that allow a farmer to take a tax benefit for donated product as a charitable contribution, it’s very hard for them to deduct the labor cost and the packing cost. So we use our dollars to defray that cost.”

Safley is moving at a brisk clip to make the most of money and crop donations. She hired a supply chain expert who is working to fully understand the potential market by crop on a monthly basis so that FAFB can manage the supply chain in a more proactive manner.

“We want to work with farmers and be more predictive about what will be available when and build on our relationships with them. Farmers know, in a general sense during a harvest and notwithstanding unpredictable weather, if they’re growing more than they can place. We’re starting to look at the three-year average crop yields by commodity and by month. We also want to expand the types of crops we work with from staples like corn, potatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, to crops we hadn’t really included yet.”

Safley has been working with the state Legislature on its commitment to build a three- to five-year strategic plan to ensure that everyone in Florida is fed. And she says those in need deserve quality, nutritious food. “We’re aiming at providing the elements of a healthy, nutritious meal. The agriculture community is our number one partner, and I believe this can be a win-win because it can help them defray some of their losses if all of a sudden the market shifts and they can’t place their product.”

Safley’s team is reaching out to farmers in a number of ways. She’s going to conferences and events, and has met with FFVA’s Supply Chain Committee.  She’ll also spend time with board members at meals and other networking events. “I want to tell them that the key to this is making it work for the farmers. They’ve got their hands full and are constantly dealing with production decisions. So the question is, how do we partner with them in a very smart way that benefits them and doesn’t interfere with their production?

“Last year, we sourced 21 million pounds of food, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as what’s available,” Safley said. “But we have to have a strategic plan that we can show the Legislature as to why the investment is so important. I believe it’s not just important for ag, but also for the at-risk populations we need to help.  To me, this one activity of working with farmers is so important to ensure that the product that’s already been invested in, watered, fertilized and cared for can have a destination.”

Safley is excited about what the Florida Association of Food Banks can do with help of farmers and others in the future. “In addition to our food banks, we work with the community in helping meet its other needs. I think that food is what brings all of those challenges together. You can live without shelter, you can live without a lot of things, but without having the nutritional foundation, everything else gets complicated… education, health and much more.”

Find out about the programs and opportunities offered by the Florida Association of Food Banks at FAFB’s website.  Information about the Farmers Feeding Florida program is posted here.

Contact Robin Safley with your questions via email at robin@fafb.org.

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