Food bank sweats out D.C. shutdown

The Treasure Coast Food Bank is facing a hurricane of sorts, and not one brewing out in the the Atlantic. It’s in Washington, D.C., where the partial government shutdown – still in effect as of press time – has become the longest ever.

Like any hurricane barreling across the ocean, this storm is hitting somebody somewhere and stands to hit a whole lot of folks all over. “We’ve been biting our fingernails over this,” said Judith Cruz, president and CEO of the not-for-profit. “As you know, (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, SNAP) provides a critical lifeline.”

A big question mark was thrown over whether SNAP benefits, commonly called food stamps, would be issued in February. About 3 million Floridians get SNAP benefits. Fortunately, federal budgeters found ways to fund February’s benefits, giving food banks and pantries all over the nation some breathing room. “We’re fortunate February benefits will be paid, but they won’t have funds for March,” Cruz said.

That is, funds for March’s SNAP benefits won’t exist unless Congress and President Donald J. Trump can agree on appropriations that will totally or partially end the shutdown. Cruz said the Treasure Coast Food Bank will have to make hard choices if that doesn’t happen. “For every meal we provide in our community, SNAP assistance does 12,” she explained.

People can get a first-hand look at how the local food-assistance program gets and distributes resources at the Food for Thought tour on Friday, Jan. 25. The tour, at the Treasure Coast Food Bank’s Produce Processing Plant, 3051 Industrial 25th St., Fort Pierce, will be from 10:30 a.m. to noon. The tour with lunch is free and open to the public.

“It’s a great opportunity for the community to come and see a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art food production plant right in their community,” Cruz said.

The food bank primarily serves recipient agencies that distribute the food, so it deals in volume. But, from its start in the late 1980s to 2013, the food bank ran into an awkward problem. Regional farmers had surplus vegetables they wanted to give. The charity sometimes had to say no.

“Over the years we’ve felt bad we had to turn down donations, because we couldn’t distribute it before it perished,” Cruz said.

Nevertheless, a big donation arrived in 2011 that got the food bank thinking equally big. “We received about a million pounds of tomatoes one week,” Cruz said. “We didn’t know what to do with it.”

Staff called around Florida looking to see if any not-for-profits were equipped to process the tomatoes for distribution. The closest one they found was in the Carolinas. Shipping the raw tomatoes north for processing made no sense. Staff and volunteers set out to stew, can and give away tomatoes fast.

“We did our best to find every tomato a home,” Cruz reminisced.

The food bank decided, taking into account Florida’s 10-month agricultural season, that starting a food-processing center to be able to accept those large donations was the way to go. There are a few reasons farmers can’t always move produce to markets and want to give it away. Cruz said farmers make extraordinary efforts to do so.

“At the end of the day, the farmers are the most generous,” Cruz said. “They want that product to feed somebody.”

In 2013 the charity moved to a 35,000-square-foot food facility on Angle Road to make room for a food-processing center on 25th Street. Cruz said the move benefits many, including folks the food bank hires to train in food processing, an employment skill they can take elsewhere.

To reserve a place at the Food for Thought tour, call Rebecca Rodriquez at 772-446-1757, or email her at rrodriquez@tcfoodbank.org. More about the Treasure Coast Food Bank is at www.stophunger.org.

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