Farm to table is a complicated journey

Guest Commentary

By Jack Payne
UF/IFAS

We have people going hungry within an hour’s drive of fields where crops are rotting. It shouldn’t be that way.

The thing is, it’s a complicated journey from field to fork. The customers of a Lee County farm may be at a hotel, or aboard a cruise ship. Those customers vanish with the collapse of tourism.

It’s not easy to suddenly divert the crop to the needy. Who pays for the harvest? Who ships or stores it? Where do you find the people who need it most?

Those questions require full-time attention that starts years before a crisis. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences got that head start when it hired a former planner and sustainability manager as a Lee County Extension agent and brought in a geographer to run the county Extension office.

Jennifer Hagen and David Outerbridge know there’s a social aspect to getting food from field to fork. If it were a simple question of production, UF/IFAS biological scientists would be able to take hold of this.

We produce enough food. Yet hunger and malnutrition persist, as an estimated one-third of all food produced on the planet never makes it to a plate. All the plant science in the world can’t fix this. It will take economics, policy, consumer behavior and relationships to improve the way we feed Florida.

Ms. Hagen and Mr. Outerbridge want people, particularly those in food deserts without grocery stores, to have access to affordable and healthy food. They also want small farmers to have a local market to sell what they grow.

Ms. Hagen, Mr. Outerbridge, UF/IFAS Collier County Extension agent Jessica Ryals and food system specialist Kelly Wilson work together to strengthen a local farm-to-fork chain through social links. They seek to connect anti-hunger organizations with local leaders and farmers. They also offer an Extension class in small urban farms and microbusiness.

It takes time to see progress. When you plant a seed, it may take months before you get food. Sometimes progress takes years. We’re seeing that in Lee County right now.

It was in Ms. Hagen’s class that Kelly Hubbell strengthened her link to artisan lettuce grower Frans Kox, whom she had met a local farmers market. Kelly, a nurse by day, and her husband, Bert, raise chickens as proprietors of Hubbell Farms. The Hubbells recently started selling their fresh eggs, Florida grown produce, herbs and honey from a mobile market — what you might call a food truck. Kelly also has a social mission. So she consulted with Ms. Hagen and other UF/IFAS agents because they had the knowhow and the “know-who” to help identify where she could serve those in need.

Mr. Kox had been running East Fork Creek Gardens, selling specialty greens to high-end chefs, but his business came down with a bad case of coronavirus when those restaurants closed. He needed a market quickly, and the Hubbells’ one on wheels looked like a great opportunity.

Mr. Kox now sells greens to the Hubbells at cost. He does this to not only support the Hubbells’ mission but because the alternative is letting the crop go unharvested, a tragic waste and an economic blow.

Farmers and consumers need each other. Consumers want fresh food and to support their local economy. They also want to reduce the carbon miles their food travels so they can eat more planet-friendly meals.

Farmers lament that people don’t know where their food comes from and rely too much on imports, fast food and canned goods.

UF/IFAS Extension plays matchmaker. You can see our agents testifying at county commission meetings, participating in urban planning and visiting with anti-hunger organizations. They organize farm tours where people can visit their food and the people who produce it.

It doesn’t look like progress — until it does. For four years, Ms. Hagen helped the Hubbells develop a business plan, meet other farmers, enroll in the Fresh Access Bucks program to double their customers’ SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, and navigate the rules governing mobile markets.

The coronavirus has revealed how fragile our food system is. Ms.Hagen and Mr. Outerbridge are cultivating a sturdier one in Lee County. That requires all kinds of science — biological, physical and social.

Local solutions to global problems require people who know the science and know the people who can benefit from it. That’s Ms. Hagen, Mr. Outerbridge and their hundreds of UF/IFAS peers across the state providing the knowhow and the “know-who.”

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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