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L-R: Volunteers George Washington, Phillip Fackler and Sammy Wales sort produce to hand out at the Farm Share event. The Farm Share food distribution was held at the High Springs Civic Center on Nov. 5. (Today photo/RAY CARSON)

 

HIGH SPRINGS – It's unusual to see traffic jams in High Springs, but on Nov. 5 a long line of cars slowly moved to the High Springs Civic Center on U.S. Highway 441, winding down to Main street and then north past the High Springs Community School.

The reason for this congestion was a semi-truck full of food that was being given away free to needy families. A line of tables had been set up with different food products at each station. As the cars slowly moved down the line, volunteers loaded the cars with bags of food. Recipients received canned goods, cereal, fresh produce, bottled water, bread, frozen fruit and staples such as rice. For many of these people the food would provide sustenance for their families who might otherwise go hungry due to poverty. Each table was manned by volunteers from the community and church members who were donating their time to help others. From 9 a.m. to noon, more than 400 cars went through the line.

The food was provided by a unique non-profit charitable organization called Food Share. The organization was established in 1991 by Patricia Robbins, who owned Robbins Seafood, a commercial seafood company. When she retired in 1991, she founded the Farm Share program with the goal of recovering wasted produce and supplying it to various organizations and directly to the public to help alleviate hunger caused by poverty for lower income families and the elderly.

The concept was based on the fact that up to 50 percent of the produce raised on farms is thrown away. Typically stores want to provide the best product to their customers and accept only produce that is cosmetically perfect. Misshapen or blemished produce is rejected, leaving the farmer little choice but to dispose of it or use it as fertilizer for their fields.

This rejected produce is just as nutritious as the product in the grocery store, just not as visually appealing to a consumer who wants to spend their money on the best looking produce. It is frustrating to the farmers, who don't like to see the fruits of their labor go to waste and the stores are restricted by having to meet consumer expectations.

Robbins saw the waste that was taking place while many living in poverty struggled to purchase food. Robbins found a unique solution by working directly with the farmers to get this wasted food to people in need. The farmers donate the excess produce and receive 200 percent of the cost of goods sold. Farm Share then distributes it to the public at events like at High Springs or working with agencies such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries and churches to get the food to the needy. It is a winning situation for everyone. The farmer does not see his product go to waste and lose money, Farm Share gets the food to distribute at little or no cost, and the public and charities get the food for free.

Farm Share also works with the federal government through grants or direct food donations from corporations to provide other food besides fresh produce. The program continued to grow and has distributed over 300 million pounds of food to over 1,000 agencies and direct distribution events in Florida. They have evolved into the most successful independent hunger organization in the eastern United States. Despite the wealth of America, millions of Americans deal with hunger and malnutrition. As family income levels decrease or remain stagnant while cost goes up, funds for food diminish, especially for low income families and the elderly. The goal of Farm Share is to help alleviate hunger in America by recovering, repackaging and distributing produce and other overstocked food products at no cost to the public. Each year they distribute over 40 million pounds of food in Florida to agencies and the public at no cost.

As a nonprofit, Farm Share still has operating costs. This is offset by the donations from farmers, public donations and government grants. They also work with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity programs and produce recovery operations. The food is collected, repacked and distributed by a combination of inmate labor and public volunteers.

“It is this combination of volunteers and cooperation of the farmers that makes it all work,” said Paul Smallwood, Director of the Jacksonville office. “We simply couldn't do this without the volunteers and participation from the communities. They are the backbone of the organization. Caring for the community and their fellow citizens makes it happen,” he said. “We have a desire to give back more to those that need it.”

This sense of community caring was evident at the High Springs event. Almost everyone helping distribute the food were volunteers. Some were individuals that just wanted to help the community by donating their time. Others represented organizations such as the Kiwanis club and missionaries from the Mormon church. The local police department directed traffic, and the High Springs Fire Department helped distribute the food. The Farm Share representative, Emma Holt, surveyed the operation as the volunteers passed out food.

“I am always amazed by how much work the volunteers do, especially the first responders. The fire and police officers already give so much to the community, and yet are willing to leave their families on their day off to come out and help,” Holt said.

Although she works for Farm Share, she is also a volunteer. Director Smallwood was quick to praise Holt. “She is retired, but works 40 to 45 hours a week arranging these distribution events. It is the compassion of the volunteers and farmers, as well as the dedication of the Farm Share staff and founder, that makes it all work. It's about having a heart and willingness to improve the lives of those less fortunate.”

More information on the program and opportunities to volunteer can be found at the organization's website farmshare.org.

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