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Feeding The Sunshine Economy In South Florida

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Tom Hudson
A box of food from Feeding South Florida that was distributed Nov. 18, 2020 at San Lázaro Catholic Church in Hialeah. About 900 people lined up for the food.

For months, since the pandemic started, South Florida has been ranked one of the most food insecure areas of the country. About a half million people report sometimes or often not having enough to eat, and most of them report losing income, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys.

Cars, SUVs and trucks circled the streets around San Lázaro Catholic Church in Hialeah until eight o'clock in the morning. It was a Wednesday – bright, sunny and cool. People came to get food in a scene that has become all too familiar in South Florida and across the nation during the pandemic.

A chain-link gate was opened at eight and the cars slowly filed into an empty grass and gravel lot next to the church. It would be another hour before volunteers and others with Feeding South Florida would be ready to shuffle the boxes of vegetables, milk, eggs and fruit into the trunks of these waiting cars.

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There were shiny Cadillacs and older Honda Accords with their paint blistered from years in the sun. Some cars were idling. Other drivers turned off their engines and opened their windows. It was a little breezy, and the humidity had dropped. There was a mud puddle a couple of dozen feet across acting as a reminder of the recent rain.

As they waited for the food distribution to begin, a group gathered around a small SUV that had a flat tire. A sedan had its hood up with the driver checking his battery connections.

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Tom Hudson
Boxes of food from Feeding South Florida wait to be handed out at San Lázaro Church in Hialeah on Nov. 18, 2020.

The hum of the Palmetto Expressway was just two blocks west. More than 20 rows of cars, at least 10 vehicles deep sat waiting for 9 o’clock on this Wednesday morning a week and a half before Thanksgiving.

"The people, including me, needed this help for COVID-19," said Julio Perez from Hialeah. "I don't have work. That's why I come to here."

He was sitting on the corner of his car. He said he had come to this Feeding South Florida food distribution site for the past two months. He lost his job at an embroidery company in Medley in the spring and is collecting state unemployment.

"I have money. I pay my bills – pay my rent – but its tight, really tight," Perez said.

Other cars carried retirees like Beba Ferrer. She sat in her car listening to Spanish-language talk radio. Like Perez, she was a return customer.

"The groceries are very expensive," she said. She explained that she comes to help control her food costs.

Even before COVID-19 hit, nearly one million households in Florida were considered food insecure — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food security is a concept that means getting enough to eat for an active, healthy life. About one in 10 met the definition of food insecure in Florida last year — that’s close to the national average.

For months, since the pandemic started, South Florida has been ranked one of the most food insecure areas of the country. The U.S. Census Bureau has been surveying Americans every two weeks on all kinds of economic challenges because of the virus.

About a half million people report sometimes or often not having enough to eat, and most of them report losing income. About a third said it was because of the virus — they are worried about getting it, they’ve been laid off, the company they worked for has closed or business has fallen off.

The most recent survey was given in late October and early November. It found a half million people in South Florida have gotten free groceries in the previous week.

CONTINUED DEMAND

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courtesy: Feeding South Florida
Feeding South Florida CEO Paco Vélez.

Nine months into this pandemic, Feeding South Florida continues to see "a lot of families coming through our lines," said Paco Vélez, CEO of the region's largest food bank.

In the spring, Feeding South Florida was staging 45 distribution sites across South Florida every week. That has been scaled back to about two dozen but demand remains strong. The number of individuals seeking help from Feeding South Florida has doubled since before the pandemic to more than 1.5 million.

That has doubled the amount of food the group was handed out.

"Right now, we continue to see [families] struggle. We continue to see small business struggle, and we continue to see some of the bigger businesses struggle. So things aren't letting up for for our industries, for our businesses, and especially for our families," Vélez said.

Danielle Hartman also has experienced the sustained demand at the food pantry and meal service run by Jewish Family Services based in Boca Raton.

Hartman is the CEO.

"Whereas before our pantry was serving primarily older adults in their 80s, all of a sudden we had more middle-class families who found themselves unemployed and were running through their savings and didn't know how to put food on their tables," she said.

COMMODITY CLIFF

Both organizations benefited from the federal CARES Act legislation passed in the first few weeks of the pandemic. And both worry about keeping up with demand without additional federal help.

"We're looking at a commodity cliff," warned Vélez.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program provided money to farmers and food distributors. That food then makes its way to local food banks. The program is due to expire at the end of the year. In addition, Vélez said, a program that buys food from American growers, impacted by international trade disputes, is due to expire at the end of December.

"We've already made about $1.3 million food purchases over this this pandemic. We're probably going to have to purchase another $2 to $3 million worth of food in order to try to serve our families," Vélez said.

FOOTBALL FOOD

If this were a normal November, more than 65,000 people would be crowded into Hard Rock Stadium for a Sunday Dolphins game or a Miami Hurricanes college football game on a Saturday.

Instead, only 13,000 fans have been allowed at home games so far this year because of the pandemic. And Dolphins games have been averaging fewer fans than the limit.

But people have been showing up each day at the stadium for food.

First with the ban on big events, then the capacity limits at the stadium, the Dolphins had kitchen capacity. Those food stands would not be serving anywhere near the same crowds that would normally come, and that threatened jobs. At the same time the demand for food shot up as more people found themselves out of work because of the virus.

Starting in June, and funded with $2 million seed money from owner Stephen Ross, the Dolphins Foundation began providing 1,000 meals a day.

"We started this food relief program," said Jason Jenkins, senior vice president of community affairs with the Dolphins, "with the hope to not only feed people with food insecurity, but also provide jobs for a lot of our game day staff, who were impacted by the loss of COVID-19 and the loss of events we have the stadium."

Groups request meal vouchers online, which in turn can be handed out to people in need, or used to pick up several dozen meals and then handed out. The program also set aside $1 million targeting local minority-owned restaurants hurt by the lack of Dolphins fans around the stadium and the economic ripple from an NFL game.

"We wanted to make sure we made a financial impact to them," Jenkins said, "to help purchase meals from them for them to serve the community."

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Tom Hudson
Volunteers load boxes of food from Feeding South Florida into a car on Nov. 18, 2020 at San Lázaro Church in Hialeah.

TAILGATING

Just before nine o'clock on that November Wednesday, in the open lot next to San Lázaro Church in Hialeah, car trunk and SUV tailgates started popping open.

It was time to slowly drive through the church parking lot. Two lanes formed. Volunteers grabbed pre-packed boxes off of pallets. Vehicles pulled up two and three at a time. A small slip of paper was under the driver's side windshield wiper. One slip for every person in the car. About 900 had been handed out on this day. And each slip of paper meant two boxes of food.

It took about an hour for the cars to pass through, collect the food, close the trunk and drive on.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.