Stuck in the house and laid off from his job, Jim Bardwell was looking for a way to help himself and the community.
The Seminole resident, who had been working for a commercial heating and air-conditioning company until the coronavirus pandemic happened, also used to own a small grocery store in Pasco County. He was particularly affected by recent stories of food insecurity amid the fallout from COVID-19.
“I remembered that one of the things I did at the store was set up an online portal that customers would go to each week and order a box of organic fruits and vegetables,” he said.
A local farm would deliver the orders to his store, and he would prepare boxes of fruits and vegetables for his customers to pick up.
“If there was one thing about that store that was awesome, it was that,” he said. “People loved that project.”
That was the seed of his recent idea to find a local farmer to supply vegetables he could help distribute to those in need.
Bardwell, 56, said he contacted the state’s Department of Agriculture for a list of local farmers and distributors. He began calling around until he found Jeff Williams of Pennrose Farms in Wimauma. The farm has been packing and selling between 300 and 400 of its $20, 20-pound produce boxes for the past two weeks, prompted by seeing the negative impact of restaurant closures on local growers.
“We’ve lost the restaurant and food service business, which is a big part of the produce business,” Williams said. “What we are doing is going around and sourcing from the local growers that have product that is ready right now. We are supporting them.”
Williams said he has donated thousands of pounds of produce to local food banks and was open to working with Bardwell when he called, if the deliveries could help families in need as well as those looking for healthy vegetable options right now.
“It was a tough year before this started because the markets were down. The growers have really been struggling year in and year out on a normal year,” said Williams. “Now that this has happened, they are really not able to move the produce when they need to move it.”
For now, Bardwell is picking up the boxes in Wimauma and transporting them to three different locations in Tampa, Clearwater and Palm Harbor, three days a week. Food banks were happy to accept his deliveries for charity, so they also agreed to let his paying customers pick up at their locations.
Bardwell has set up a website for orders where customers can pay for a box of fresh vegetables for themselves and donate to the food banks at the same time. The orders can be placed at buyfarmfood.com
The contents of the boxes will change every week, depending on what foods are available from Pennrose Farms. The most recent boxes included cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, green squash, yellow squash, onions and cabbage.
Bardwell charges $22.50 for the box. (The extra $2.50 covers his gas and truck rental fees.)
“The concept is if I can help farmers, families that can afford a box, and families in need at the same time, then bang, it’s a win-win,” he said. His goal is to sell or give away 200 boxes at each delivery.
When he launched the idea and website on April 21, Bardwell said he received orders for 600 pounds of produce donations within two days.
The boxes need to be ordered two days before they are picked up so that Bardwell has time to place the request with Pennrose. For the time being, Bardwell will be delivering boxes three days a week between 8 a.m. and noon at the following locations: Wednesdays in Palm Harbor at the Feast Food Pantry (2255 Nebraska Ave., Palm Harbor); Thursdays at Higher Hope International Ministries (5808 Lynn Road, Tampa); and Fridays at High Point Neighborhood Family Center (5812 150th Ave. N, Clearwater).
Bardwell and Williams said they are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, wearing masks and gloves and practicing social distancing. Bardwell will put the boxes in the trunk of your car to avoid personal contact.
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