GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The UF/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program (FNP) is among the organizations partnering on a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)-led grant project to fight food insecurity in several rural Florida communities.
In a virtual press conference last Thursday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced the project, funded by a $100,000 Walmart Foundation grant and benefiting selected food banks in Flagler, Highlands, Levy, Putnam, Walton and Palm Beach counties.
“Despite Florida growing over 300 commodities and enough fresh produce to feed 150 million Americans, nearly 3 million Floridians suffer from food insecurity, including 850,000 children – and this was before the public health and economic crises of COVID-19,” Commissioner Fried said. “We’ve had to get creative to help fight chronic hunger, and that includes public-private partnerships, particularly in rural areas. That’s why we’re so grateful to the Walmart Foundation for their generous support, providing $100,000 to rural food banks and farmers that will help Florida’s families in need. This partnership is a great example of government, the private sector, and nonprofits coming together to serve our neighbors during a crisis.”
Karla Shelnutt, UF/IFAS Extension state program leader for nutrition and principal investigator of FNP, spoke on the call in her capacity as vice president of the (UF-unaffiliated) Living Healthy in Florida board, which is a direct support organization of FDACS.
“This work aligns perfectly with the Living Healthy in Florida mission,” Shelnutt said. “COVID-19 has resulted in a significant increase in the unemployment rate in Florida, which has led to more and more families visiting food banks and pantries for assistance. Many of these programs have been unable to meet this increase in demand. This grant initiative is going to make a huge impact for several rural food banks and pantries to obtain the infrastructure needed to help meet this demand and increase their capacity to serve.”
Shelnutt explained that the project merges her roles, as UF/IFAS Extension FNP public health specialists will partner with the recipient food banks to provide a consultation to determine infrastructure and nutrition education needs.
“The Family Nutrition Program will lend the expertise of our public health specialists to provide one-on-one consultations to each participating organization to help them assess their space and identify ways to not only expand their infrastructure but also to encourage families to make healthier eating choices,” she said. “This work also aligns perfectly with UF/IFAS Extension priorities to increase access to healthy food for all Floridians.”
Another way the project is accomplishing that access is by connecting Florida-fresh produce to food-insecure families. A nonprofit farmer network, the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Excellence and Conservation (CSAEC), will provide pre-made produce boxes to the selected food banks for distribution to families.
“Partnering with these food pantries will make a difference in many lives, and we are honored to play a small role in it,” Shelnutt said. She also expressed gratitude to both the Walmart Foundation for supporting the “innovative solution that will help feed hungry Floridians, decrease commodity waste, and increase the operational capacity of rural food banks and pantries,” as well as Commissioner Fried for “her commitment to bringing more awareness to food security issues throughout our state.”
–Kirsten Romaguera, UF/IFAS