According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one in seven South Floridians can't afford the food they need to stay healthy.
But a new program called Farmers Feeding Florida is hoping to ease that strain on families by teaming up with farmers. The program, established by the Florida Association of Food Banks, pays the packaging and shipping costs for produce that is not beautiful enough for commercial sale. The produce itself is donated by farmers.
Goods from that program are distributed across the state at locations like the United Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale.
At 10 a.m., there’s a line of cars idling in the parking lot. Some in line are listening to music, others talking with their passenger, all patiently waiting for a bag — and some a bag and a box — of food.
Marlene Fulton is about 15 cars away from the front of the line. She’s been waiting for an hour, which she says is unusual, but doesn't mind waiting. She relies on the food she gets here once a week.
“It’s very important because I wouldn't have the money to go to the regular grocery store to get it,” she says.
Fulton is a retired business owner, struggling to make her monthly $133 in food stamps stretch for even two weeks.
“I’ve always worked and I never believed I would end up this way,” she sighs.
Her car eventually makes its way towards the pick-up area, where a volunteer hands her a bag of food. It’s not full of typical food-pantry goods — things like canned vegetables, pasta, and peanut butter — it's a bag of fresh vegetables and two containers of feta cheese.
“Sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, it was all plantains. That was it," Fulton says. "And last week, it was all peppers. Nothing else but peppers. So you just have to adjust your menus to go with that.”
The bag would probably ring up around $15 or $20 at a regular grocery store, but here she gets it free.
Several people in line said produce in particular is the most difficult to afford: They could get more bang for their buck buying processed or canned foods.
At Publix, a pepper the same size as one Fulton got costs $1.28. That's a big chunk of a tight food budget.
But farms like Thomas Produce Company, which grows peppers, among other things, gladly donates less pretty veggies to people like Fulton. Tommy LaSalle is general manager of the Boca Raton farm.
“It’s perfectly edible stuff that we were basically throwing out,” LaSalle says. "So now we’re basically able to pack it up and donate it to a food bank and help everybody."
With about 12,000 acres of crops, the produce they do sell goes to stores like Winn Dixie, Wal-Mart and Publix.
Standing on a bridge straddling a conveyor belt, the sound of thousands of pounds of green peppers dumped onto the packaging line is beautiful. Like a bucket of bouncy balls thrown onto the floor. The peppers are then cleaned, and they undergo inspection by about 20 pairs of eyes that cull out those unfit for grocery stores. Those go to the food banks.
“The food bank ones might have a more of a severe shape issue or maybe a little ding on the side of them,” LaSalle explains.
To the untrained eye, though, the food bank peppers look just like the ones at Publix.
It's no secret that fresh fruits and vegetables are better for you — they have more vitamins and minerals than processed foods. But before the Farmers Feeding Florida program, a lot of food banks in Florida didn’t provide fresh produce or provided it infrequently.
Rebecca Brislain is executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks.
“[The produce] costs us 7.5 cents per pound -- that's our average. If you were to purchase a can of green beans that could cost you about $.48 to $.50 at a wholesale costs.”
In many ways this program is an adaptation to changing times: Monetary donations to local food banks have been falling lately. And Brislain says the manufacturing industry has been getting better at keeping track of inventory and making fewer manufacturing errors -- that means fewer items going to food pantries.
The only challenge is teaching recipients how to use or preserve an entire bag of green peppers.