The staggering facts on food insecurity among our fellow neighbors
September and Hunger Awareness Month is especially important in Polk County, where food scarcity plagues nearly 17.9 percent of the population.
The facts do not lie; and they are staggering. Polk County ranks eighth in the United States in terms of food insecurity, with one in six families struggling to afford an adequate food supply.
As director of Agape Food Bank (AFB), I’ve witnessed first-hand the damaging effects of hunger, as well as the remarkable benefits of strong anti-hunger programs.
AFB, a program of the Catholic Charities of Central Florida, is the only designated provider of USDA commodities in the Polk, Highlands, and Hardee counties. AFB is also a part of the Feeding America national food bank network and the Florida Association of Food Banks (FAFB).
Through partnerships with various corporations, organizations, and people, AFB has been providing food and nutrition to impoverished families for the last 30 years. Throughout 2013-14, AFB distributed over 9 million pounds of food to families in need, which translates to 7.5 million meals spread out over nearly 200 food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, and more.
Three of our most important initiatives include community assessments to better understand what needs to address; partnering with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) to collect fresh produce from Florida farms; and working with local schools to meet children’s hunger needs.
Assessing Our Community’s Need
A key aspect in tackling the problem of hunger is assessing the needs within Polk County. From data released in 2013 by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), we learned that nearly 107,634 Polk County residents live in poverty. FRAC also reported that over 70 percent of children in our county are eligible to receive free or reduced lunches.
These statistics reveal that the meal gap is still dire despite the efforts of AFB and our community partners. As a result, we’ve pledged to improve our capacity by 30 percent in the coming year to keep up with our community’s critical need.
Working with the FDACS
We want to ensure that our families in need receive balanced and nutritional meals, which includes healthy produce. To do this, AFB has paired with the FDACS in conjunction with the FAFB and Farmers Feeding Florida. This statewide program collects leftover crops from Florida farms and delivers them to food banks.
“This is a very targeted area for [Commissioner Adam H. Putnam],” shares Robin Safley, director for the Division of Food Nutrition and Wellness for the Florida Department of Agriculture. “He wants to marry those farmers with families in need.”
Food is left in the field for many reasons. Sometimes farmers have a higher yield than expected, or the season for that produce ends, or the demand decreases. Sometimes the crops aren’t aesthetically attractive enough for commercial retail despite being healthy. This program is designed to collect those leftover crops and deliver them to food banks like AFB.
“We want to ensure that there’s no food waste in our state,” Safley explains. “It’s a big initiative in Florida and it’s going really, really well.” Overall, the FAFB reports that approximately 28 million pounds of produce have been recovered from the field and provided to food banks like AFB.
Feeding Hungry Children
Due to the high rate of children eligible for free and reduced school lunches in Polk County, focusing on childhood hunger is very important. In conjunction with the Polk County School Board, AFB has set up the SmilePak program, which establishes food pantries on participating school campuses.
Every Friday, volunteers put together backpacks full of food for children from low-income families. The purpose is to provide stable meals for the children over the weekend. If needed, students can also receive food during the week.
Foods given to students include cans of beef stew, red beans and rice, shelf-stable 2 percent milk, 100 percent fruit juice, cereal, and more. AFB also provides items like jars of peanut butter, canned tuna fish, and pasta dishes to the families of these children.
The SmilePak program is currently operating in 22 schools and serving over 1,140 children. AFB delivers new food to the pantries every month.
Community and Volunteer Support
As we kick-off Hunger Awareness Month, I urge the community to turn its thoughts to the number of people who experience food instability right in our own backyards. AFB is constantly looking to partner with volunteers and sources of support in our endeavor to end hunger in Polk County. Grocers like Publix, Sam’s Club, Target, Walmart and Winn-Dixie donate to our food bank, while ministries and organizations in the area run food drives.
We also operate through generous donations from partners including Bank of America, GiveWell Community Foundation, Mosaic Foundation, Publix, Walmart Foundation, Wells Fargo, and United Way. Other AFB initiatives include the Partner Agency Sharing Program, the Pallet Delivery Program, and the Mobile Food Pantries, among others.
Our programs rely heavily on volunteers, both individually and in groups from different organizations. If you’re interested in making a donation, getting involved, or helping to spread the word this September, visit www.cflcc.org/agape for more information.
story by KIM LONG, director of Agape Food Bank
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: As director of Agape Food bank, Kim Long also serves as chairman of the board for Polk Vision and the initiative, Building a Healthier Polk. For more information on the Building a Healthier Polk initiative, visit www.polkvision.com/building-a-healthier-polk/. You can also find them on Twitter at @HealthierPolk and on Facebook.