Ag program could expand
JOHN BUCHANANThe Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is working with a consortium of other agencies and private entities to aggressively expand a longstanding program to feed Florida's hungry children during the summer.
Published: December 19, 2012
Published: December 19, 2012
The Summer BreakSpot program provides free breakfasts, lunches and snacks to children 18 and under.
Nearly 60 percent of the children in Florida qualify for free or reduced-price school meals under the USDA-funded child nutrition program that includes Summer BreakSpot, as well as breakfast and school nutrition programs during the school year, according to Tallahassee-based Florida Impact, a nonprofit organization that has been involved in the program for years.
However, only 14 percent of those 1.6 million children received meals last summer.
The good news, said Florida Impact executive director Debra Susie, is that more than 3,000 locations in all 67 of Florida's counties, such as food banks, churches, and parks and recreation facilities, served nearly 11 million meals to hungry children during the first summer that the FDA assumed responsibility for the program from the Florida Department of Education.
There were 512 new food distribution sites opened last summer, an 18 percent increase over 2011, according to Florida Impact.
Now, a major outreach effort to grow the program further is under way for summer 2013.
Marketing partners of Florida Impact include the Orlando Magic, the Miami Dolphins, the Tampa Bay Rays, Goodwill, the United Way 211, the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Health.
Funding partners include Walmart, The Mosaic Company Foundation and the Farver Foundation.
The FDA — under the leadership of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who pioneered the effort to transfer responsibility for the program to the FDA from the DOE — is committed to expanding the effectiveness of Summer BreakSpot.
"As a state, we have not done very well at making sure that all the children who need good food are getting it," said Robin Safley, director of the FDA's Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness. "So we have worked with other entities including the Department of Children and Families to get their data on where needy children are located demographically. And what we have done is overlay the sites we have lined up with the locations where there are needy children but no sites, and we are now actively recruiting new sites and expanding existing sites."
As a result, Safley said, the program represents an opportunity for Florida farmers to sell products into a growing market niche and serve their communities at the same time.
"For example," Safley said, "Florida Impact is seeking grant funding to work with culinary schools in Miami-Dade County and farmers to demonstrate how we can bring more fresh produce into the summer program."
Expansion of the Summer BreakSpot program, including a broadened opportunity for growers, represents a core commitment of the FDA and Florida Impact. It was one reason Putnam sought to move the feeding programs from the DOE to the FDA. "And one of his main goals," Safley said, "was to focus on providing more fresh food alternatives for all of the feeding programs, including the summer program. And part of that was to create a larger market for Florida produce."
Although the FDA has only been in charge of the program for a year, Safley said her department is proud of its accomplishments.
"We increased participation by about 6 percent, which means about 400,000 additional meals were served," she said. "We also achieved a 12 percent increase in the total number of feeding sites and a 6 percent increase in the number of meals served."
A key partner in those successes has been Florida Impact, which strongly supported Putnam's initiative to assume responsibility for all USDA-funded child feeding programs. Florida Impact had led the charge for several years to improve the reach and efficiency of the programs.
Susie and her team piloted basic marketing strategies on their own before the Legislature transferred responsibility to the FDA, effective last Jan. 1. For example, Florida Impact developed a marketing program for eight of the state's largest counties to increase awareness of the program, including an outreach effort spearheaded by the United Way 211.
The current focus has been on the Interstate 4 corridor, including Hillsborough, Polk and Orange counties, Susie said, with a special emphasis on underserved communities such as Lithia in Hillsborough County.
Susie gives high marks to the FDA and Safley's department for their inaugural efforts.
"I can't say enough good things about the job the Department of Agriculture has done since they assumed responsibility for the program," Susie says. "Moving the program to their supervision was the best thing we ever did. They are really thinking outside the box and working to pull the agricultural community in to improve the standards for feeding children."
For information on how farmers or other interested parties can get involved, visit www.summerfoodflorida.org or www.freshfromflorida.com.