The New Food Bank is Banking on Itself
It’s here. The six-week holiday flurry takes off with Thanksgiving, crescendos at Christmas and winds down as the last calendar page runs out of squares. We look forward to sharing gifts and communing over elaborate meals with friends and loved ones. We toss our change into the ubiquitous red kettles (in faith that it will be well allocated).
Want to do more? This is a perfect season to dig a little deeper and assist area organizations that could use your monetary help or other skills to connect local people with garden-fresh produce. While the food may be readily available, it has to be distributed into the hands (and mouths) that need it. At this time of year, why not support the groups that work tirelessly to help coordinate access to food?
It might be hard to fathom that in a state which ranks second (behind California) in producing the largest selection and quantity of vegetables, so many of our neighbors are still food insecure and rely on community assistance for fresh food. Fortunately, there are organizations that help year-round. With government funding for social services on the decline, however, conventional fundraising has morphed into more creative models of giving. For instance, if you give a few dollars, instead of a thank you postcard, you may get a bag of produce. Non-profits are finding ways to support themselves through entrepreneurial activities. So how can the community at large best support these groups?
FARM TO FAMILY
Based in Hastings, Pie in the Sky and its outreach Farm to Family truck “fill in the cracks” of other social services by bringing produce from farms throughout the area to folks in food deserts. Malea Guiriba wears every hat there, from executive director to social media manager, and is all about connections. She has built and cultivated relationships with farmers from Spuds Farm (Elkton), Alvarez Farms (Raiford), GyoGreens (Ponte Vedra Beach) and Berry Good Farms (Jacksonville) among many others.
“Some local farmers have told us that they were looking for other ways to sell their produce locally. Since farming is more than a full-time job, farmers don’t have the time to get the produce into the hands of the local consumer. Farm to Family builds the bridge between consumer and farmer and does it in a way that helps the people in food deserts, provides local jobs, keeps our spending dollars local and helps the small family farmer.”
“We’re helping that small farmer by giving him another outlet to sell his produce and maybe make a little better price than he might get selling it to a broker. This can provide a niche market for the small family farm and it keeps our produce dollars in our community,” added Guiriba, “and that helps us all.”
When the Farm to Family truck rolls into a stop, every bunch of greens comes with a bunch of education as the staff introduces different tastes of unfamiliar produce. Phyllis Wood, the market manager, has been known to whip up a chopped kale salad using ingredients from the truck and share it with skeptics who are usually blown away.
“It’s bringing those new things to people’s attention,” says Guiriba. “Everybody loves it.”
BERRY GOOD FARMS
The North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville enrolls students and post-graduates aged 6–22 with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities. On its grounds, you’ll find Berry Good Farms. This self-sustaining urban farm expanded from a student garden program and teaches horticulture and culinary arts to these young people “in a formal agribusiness style,” says Tim Armstrong, the Berry Good Farms manager.
Their food truck, Berry Good Farms on the Go, came in second at 2014’s One Spark crowdfunding festival and kicked off operations this year as a vendor at the festival.
Ellen Hiser, Berry Good Farms director, says the truck’s twofold purpose is to have a healthy food truck and to “also be a place where we could train our young adults with intellectual disabilities where they get a job.”
The truck now offers good-for-you options in places like the Jax Food Truck Food Court and outside of downtown business offices. It accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and has partnered with St. Vincent's Primary Care to sell produce in lower income, food desert areas.
Farm to Family’s Guiriba approached Berry Good Farms about wholesaling and “they viewed it as an extension of their services in a way to give back.” She adds “I love that and it’s nice to be able to align your attitudes and beliefs about what you’re doing with like-minded folks.”
From assisting with a utility bill to providing groceries to get over the hump, Jacksonville Beach-based Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry (BEAM) has helped people in the beaches communities with basic necessities of life since the mid-1980s. While their food pantry was the first in the area to introduce client choice initiative, others have followed this trend. In this model, the client is empowered to choose what they would like, supermarket style.
Adjacent to the squat, nondescript building that houses BEAM’s offices, Grace Garden offers a verdant oasis. Built nearly three years ago “with 100% volunteer sweat equity,” says BEAM’s Executive Director Susan King, the garden has patios, seats and benches, and is alive with activity in the growing season.
Walk with King through Grace Garden and see a shaded mushroom garden, aeroponic water-conserving grow towers and dozens of raised beds which together yield thousands of pounds of produce. Fruit trees and berry bushes line the perimeter of the garden and building, and there are multiple composting bins on site too.
King is a master gardener, sits on the board of Feeding Northeast Florida and would eventually like to see another urban garden at
BEAM’s newer thrift store/food pantry site in Mayport. “We try to keep our programs as self-sufficient as we can,” says King.
All of the food grown on site goes to BEAM’s own food pantries. King considers BEAM unique among food pantries, in that they emphasize nutrition and education. Their Paths to Wellness program includes an on-staff dietitian who works one on one with clients guiding them with shopping, reading labels and making food plans.
“Just handing somebody a bag of food is not the answer,” King says.
CLARA WHITE MISSION
Head west from BEAM into downtown Jacksonville and find Clara White Mission. The Mission’s goal is to help at-risk individuals return to dignity and productivity with education and job training through its various programs like White Harvest Farms.
Marketing director Abner Davis says Clara White aims to give a “hand up, not a handout.”
Located in a northwest Duval County food desert, the 13-acre White Harvest Farms serves its neighborhood first. Local residents can shop and pick their own produce, and staff will “cut it, clean it and bag it right there on site,” says Davis.
Clara White Mission’s downtown location hosts a garden, and produce grown there and from White Harvest Farms is used in the kitchen (which prepares 500 meals a day), for the culinary arts programs and sold to local restaurants. Clara’s at the Cathedral, the hands-on training café run by the Mission’s culinary arts students every Friday at St. John’s Cathedral Church, also benefits from the variety of fresh produce including spinach, kale, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, collard greens and much more. Volunteers can work alongside the master gardener there.
EDUCATION AND ADVOCACY
All of these organizations serve education with a side of food advocacy. Farm to Family is developing a relationship with children at the Boys and Girls Club in St. Augustine. BEAM invites students from the University of North Florida’s nutrition and nursing programs to come in and work with its clients. Clara White Mission partners with Duval County schools to hold an eight-week nutrition class. Once completed, the kids go to an after-school program at White Harvest Farm.
Bringing it full circle, students from NFSSE and Berry Good Farms have donated plants to and worked at BEAM’s Grace Garden.
“It’s important to us that our students see that we can be the recipient of people’s help and money. But everybody can help somebody no matter what your position is,” says Berry Good Farm’s Hiser. “Our young people love it, they love going out and helping someone.”
These organizations contribute to a resilient local food system by growing their own food, working with each other to achieve success or supporting local area farms by purchasing their produce. They help keep healthy food affordable. Is food changing the way nonprofits in our area do business? These four programs are less than two years old. So in this area, heck yes! AND they are collaborating rather than competing, sharing resources and volunteers.
By purchasing produce at the Farm to Family truck, whether during the holidays or other times throughout the year, you are investing in your own health while supporting an organization that is promoting health for their clients and students. Buying from the BEAM thrift store or sitting down for lunch at Clara’s at the Cathedral means supporting organizations that help folks who may be in crisis in the short term, but are given tools for long-term success through education. Purchasing a healthy lunch from the Berry Good Farm to Go truck supports the school and helps a young adult with disabilities with on the job training and/or a job.
Whether anchored in a food desert or traveling to one, many fine local organizations can use your help this holiday to provide access to healthy food. Getting a healthy meal on the table can be a challenge for anyone, but consider the folks who are particularly vulnerable because of lack of access. While giving may be more on the mind right now, support throughout the year is equally important. Over 300,000 people in Northeast Florida turn to meal services or food pantries for assistance. All year round. No matter how you want to help there is ample opportunity to put your money where their mouths are.