Taking Action to Alleviate Florida’s Growing Hunger Crisis

Food typically plays a prominent role in year-end holiday festivities, so it seems like a particularly appropriate time to look at the growing crisis of hunger and food insecurity here in Florida.

The statistics are grim. Florida ranks fourth among the 50 states and D.C. for the rate at which families were unable to afford enough food in 2010, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) increased 111% in Florida between 2007 and 2010 – the third-highest increase of all states – according to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute. A record 3.1 million Floridians – one in six residents – received food-stamp aid in September, according to new figures released by the Agriculture Department, a number that has nearly tripled since the Great Recession.

These statistics are in stark evidence in our communities. A few weeks ago in St. Petersburg, more than 1,900 people lined up to receive free boxes of food – nearly four times what organizers had expected based on past numbers. Similar disaster-level numbers are being reported by food banks all across the state. A recent 60 Minutes story on the plight of homeless families in Central Florida (one-third of all the nation’s homeless families with children are in Florida) highlighted the link between housing insecurity and food insecurity – a link that is particularly important in a state like Florida that has experienced one of the worst housing busts in the country.

In a recent FPN webinar, Rebecca Brislain, Executive Director of the Florida Association of Food Banks, described a “perfect storm” for food insecurity in Florida right now, with unemployment and food and gas prices all on the rise; threatened cuts to federal nutrition programs and drops in state and local funding; and large declines in the food banks’ two largest food streams: manufacturing and federal commodities.

So what can be done? One FPN member that has been focusing a lot of energy on addressing hunger and food insecurity in its region is the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties. In the same FPN webinar, Jillian Vukusich, Director of Community Investment for the community foundation, described the foundation’s ambitious Alleviate Hunger Initiative, which seeks to identify strategic opportunities to improve the food distribution and collection system and improve access to existing programs in Palm Beach and Martin counties.

Vukusich told webinar participants that 160 million pounds of food are wasted annually in Palm Beach County alone, according to Palm Beach County Community Food Alliance – that’s more than all the food distributed statewide by food banks in a year. At the same time, $146 million in federal assistance programs is going unused in the county each year. So when the foundation started to focus on the issue of hunger, foundation staff spent a lot of time asking why this was happening and trying to figure out what’s working that can be replicated.

Since 2010, the foundation has held numerous conversations with community partners all over the region and conducted 60-70 site visits; those convenings and site visits continue. After doing a lot of listening, the foundation determined that its resources could be best used by focusing on two areas that are critical links in fighting hunger in its region: food access and food distribution.

In the webinar, Vukusich described how the foundation developed a co-investment strategy for its hunger initiative, using matching opportunities, challenge grants, donor education and other methods to leverage existing resources in the community to fight hunger. It also has focused on developing and utilizing strong community and public/private partnerships with funding partners (including Allegany Franciscan Ministries and Quantum Foundation), local government, state associations, national networks like Feeding America and, most importantly, local nonprofits.

In the area of food access, the foundation’s initiative is focused on marketing and outreach – helping people learn how to access existing resources (building awareness of local programs, explaining how to apply for food stamps, etc.). Examples of the types of projects being funded by the initiative around food access are Florida Impact’s pilot program to increase utilization of the federal summer food nutrition program and afterschool meal program, and C.R.O.S. Ministries’ SNAP Outreach program.

In the area of food distribution, the Alleviate Hunger Initiative is focused, in part, on building local capacity to distribute food efficiently. One example: the initiative is helping build the capacity of Feed the Hungry Village Baptist’s Community Food Truck Program, which recovers food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it quickly to people in need.

You can view the full FPN “Hunger in Florida” webinar on our website, along with related reports and resources. You can also learn more about the Community Foundation’s Alleviate Hunger Initiative on its website. FPN will continue to work with our members interested in this issue to help share what’s needed and what’s working to alleviate hunger and fight food insecurity across Florida.

- David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Florida Philanthropic Network