With schools and restaurants closed, Florida’s growers have had a hard time finding places to purchase produce. The coronavirus is even pushing some farmers to destroy food that it can’t sell or donate.
Meanwhile, people are hungrier than ever. Feeding America estimates that school closures and surges in unemployment caused by the coronavirus could cause food insecurity for an additional 17.1 million people.
“We suddenly had a lot more people that needed food and we suddenly had a lot more food available," said Thomas Mantz, executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay.
Publix is hoping to help with both farmers and the food banks.
The Lakeland-based grocery chain announced a new initiative Wednesday to purchase food from local farms in the seven states where it operates. Produce distributor FreshPoint will help Publix identify local growers. The produce and dairy from southern farmers will be donated to Feeding America.
Publix is donating 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk this week to kick off the initiative.
“This really is about helping our families,” said Publix spokesperson Maria Brous. “Both on the farmer’s side and those that are in need.”
Feeding Tampa Bay, which typically provides the equivalent of 5 million meals a month in the 10 counties it serves, is facing higher demand than ever, Mantz said. The organization reported 400 percent more requests for food and 70 percent of people showing up for help that have never been in a food line before.
Feeding Tampa Bay stocks local food banks, delivers meals to homebound seniors and has been helping feed students since the coronavirus closed schools.
During past Florida crises, like hurricanes, food donations come in from other parts of the country to fill the surge in need. But the coronavirus has disturbed growers across the globe.
“In this instance we turn to a partner like Publix and say, ‘Can you help?’" Mantz said.
The issue is especially pressing because of timing. There’s already a sense of urgency when it comes to getting fresh produce into homes before it spoils. With the end of April approaching, South Florida growers are in peak growing season.
“We have a unique window of a couple of weeks to grab as much produce as we can and get it into households while there’s most need," Mantz said.
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Pero Family Farms, which operates throughout Florida, has been donating and selling produce below cost due to the coronavirus crisis, said chief sales officer Nick Bergstrom.
“We as growers take a lot of pride in everything we grow, and we grow it to be consumed," Bergstrom said. “There are tremendous losses that are that are taking place for farms."
The Publix initiative provides extra revenue for growers to start planting for future yields.
“There’s not a whole lot of clarity as to when all the food service sector is going to open back up, but we can’t stop planting for the mouths that need to be fed," Bergstrom said. “We we are very, very blessed to have Publix have reached out to us and extend a helping hand.”
To donate or find food near you, visit feedingtampabay.org.
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