Iowa Public Television


Farm Share Bridges Gap Between Harvest and Hungry

posted on April 4, 2003

The U.N.'s food and agriculture organization is asking for 86-million dollars to help protect Iraqi crops in the hope of staving off food shortages.

The most immediate need is to save the harvest of winter wheat and barley that will begin later this month. The money is part of a broader 2.2-billion dollar request to rebuild Iraqi agriculture after the war.

Closer to home, hunger is also a problem. But the problem is lessened by the advantage of peace and the existence of organizations that can link American food surpluses with the needs of the hungry.

An effective example of the benefits of such charitable ventures can be found in Florida. There a group is adept at finding a place for oversupplies that benefits the needy without distorting the agricultural markets. John Nichols reports.


Farm Share Bridges Gap Between Harvest and Hungry

Despite living in the world's most affluent nation, millions of Americans go hungry. And while U.S. farmers are the most productive on the planet, much of their bounty is wasted. The nutritionally valuable food is destined to rot in the fields or landfills, in part, because of a lack of collection and distribution systems.

But an innovative program in Southern Florida is attempting to bridge the gap between the harvest and the hungry. It's called Farm Share and it's giving new meaning to the old adage of "waste not – want not."

Patricia Robbins founded Farm Share in 1991.

Patricia Robbins: "In the 10 years farm share has been in business we've recovered over 108 million pounds of food that would have gone to the dump. We feel that this number is a very small percentage of what is actually being thrown away on a daily basis. Here in Homestead we recover about 19 million pounds of food a year and that's less than 20% of what's being thrown away just in this area."

Increasingly, consumers demand picture-perfect vegetables that are nutritious and cosmetically pleasing. Produce that fails to make the grade is culled from the packinghouse line and discarded.

For farmers, it's bitterly ironic… Food they spent time and money growing now costs them even more to throw away.

Benny Helms grows a variety of produce near Homestead, Florida.

Benny Helms: "There's perfection and imperfection. What I'm talking about with imperfection is maybe a little scratch, a little scar or something on a product and the chain stores doesn't like that in their display cases. So we have to throw away close to fifty percent of the product just to get fifty percent of the good product into the chain stores."

In addition to $23 million of produce donated annually by about 40 growers, Farm Share receives fruits and vegetables from packers, wholesalers and brokers.

The non-profit organization also receives goods from traditional outlets like grocery stores, food drives and through corporate donations.

Nearly 650 Florida agencies are direct beneficiaries of the program. And nearly one-and-a-half million households enjoy nutritious food from Farm Share – all of it free of charge.

Mayor Otis Wallace: "I think Farm Share is a wonderful program and a necessary program. It's one of those rare occasions when a need is met…"

Otis Wallace has been the mayor of Florida City for 18 years. He claims Farm Share is a highly effective program. And he says there is too much hunger in his community.

Mayor Otis Wallace: "Any amount is too much as far as I'm concerned in a country as abundant as ours. But I think the most shameful part of it is that when you have hunger in a land of plenty, that's unacceptable and I think farm share understands that and it's committed to making sure that we take care of that problem."

Enjoying symbiotic relationships with numerous organizations, Farm Share is a dramatic example of a public/private partnership that works.

The operation is funded through a $900,000 annual appropriation from the Florida legislature. This year, Farm Share will deliver more than $40-million worth of food to Florida's hungry -- a return of more than 4,000% on the State's investment.

The Florida Department of Agriculture provides Farm Share's 53,000 square foot packinghouse where a small staff and an army of volunteers handle and distribute the fresh produce as well as traditional USDA commodities. Even the Florida Department of Corrections has a stake in the operation.

Patricia Robbins: "Farm Share uses inmate labor donated by the Florida Department of Corrections. And one of the benefits of that program is that it gives us free labor, 24 inmates to help us with our sorting and lifting of boxes and packaging. And it is very beneficial for the inmate because after they've been in prison for a number of years, they need to learn communication skills for the outside world. Another thing we've seen is that the inmates are often times feeding their own family when they're working here, because their being in prison has eliminated the income from their family."

Farm Share Worker: "I need beans, potatoes and more tomatoes…"

Don Pybas: "Per capita we're one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the United States and there's a tremendous need out there for wholesome food…"

Don Pybas is the extension director for Miami/Dade County. He claims economic conditions in the area coupled with wasted food makes Farm Share a valuable asset to the community.

Don Pybas: "Our consumers in the United States are very spoiled, they like blemish-free products and many times that product is not saleable through the food chain. So, it has to go somewhere. So, farmers either have an option to bring it to Farm Share and distribute that food which is wholesome food or it goes into the landfill which causes an environmental impact."

In addition to serving all 67 counties in Florida, Farm Share ships produce throughout the Atlantic Seaboard to destinations as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C.

But the program is especially responsive to hunger in its own backyard. Each month nearly 5,000 individuals receive 85 pounds of fresh produce and USDA commodities directly from Farm Share.

Will Brown is Farm Share's Operation Manager.

Will Brown: "My personal favorites are the elderly and maybe because I'm elderly, I don't know but I like to see them receiving the Farm Share food. And they're thankful and they're appreciative and they deserve it and from what I can tell almost all or a large percentage of the people who benefit from the Farm Share program are working people."

Patricia Robbins: "In Florida, 70% of the recipients of USDA commodities are elderly. If they're on a fixed income, they're elderly and they need food that 85 pounds of food helps. I don't want them to go to bed hungry and I don't want these people to have to make the choice between their medicine and eating. And that's why I do it. It's the reward, it's how you feel in your heart at the end of the day when you know that a million people have been fed because you did this today."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture charity crops food hunger news poverty