Free food from Jack­sonville store is 'ever ything' to needy

South Florida Times - - PRAYERFUL LIVING - Speaker for Dil­lard Univer­sity. By The Florida Times-Union Farm Share ware­house feeds the community

BETH REESE CRAVEY

JACK­SONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Once or twice a week Wayne McNeil heads to the Farm Share ware­house on Jack­sonville's East­side to pick up free pro­duce, meat, eggs, rice and beans and what­ever else is avail­able. He takes it back to his church, Pleas­ant Grove Prim­i­tive Bap­tist on the North­side, where it is dis­trib­uted to the needy in his community.

The food “means ev­ery­thing'' to low-in­come fam­i­lies try­ing to make ends meet and se­niors liv­ing on fixed in­comes, he said.

McNeil has been mak­ing trips to the Jessie Street food bank ware­house for years and through sev­eral man­age­ment changes. He kept com­ing, through all the changes, to help his neigh­bors.

“I'm still here,'' he said. “You have to be pas­sion­ate about this.''

Three years ago, Home­stead-based Farm Share took over the ware­house, where a 10-mem­ber staff and vol­un­teers now dis­trib­ute about 13 mil­lion pounds of food a year to 11 coun­ties through 110 non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Pleas­ant Grove church and at food give­away events. Farm Share des­ig­nated March as No Pro­duce Left Be­hind Month to bring at­ten­tion to the “per­fectly good'' fruits and veg­eta­bles dis­carded by farms be­cause they do not have the proper ap­pear­ance or size to be sold com­mer­cially.

Founded in 1991, Farm Share res­cues that dis­carded pro­duce and gets it to the needy, along with food from the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Wal­mart, Wal­greens and other area donors. Statewide the non­profit and its five re­gional ware­houses dis­trib­ute about 40 mil­lion pounds of food an­nu­ally through 2,000 agen­cies - all for free.

“We're con­stantly ei­ther de­liv­er­ing or pick­ing up,'' said Ger­ald Sweatt, fa­cil­ity man­ager at the Jack­sonville ware­house.“It is very, very re­ward­ing. Chal­leng­ing, but re­ward­ing.''

A June 2017 food give­away at Terry Parker High School was par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing for Leighsha John­son, who is the food bank's community food dis­tri­bu­tion co­or­di­na­tor and a Terry Parker alum­nus.

“It was awe­some. We served 1,000 house­holds,'' she said. “I was able to go back and serve my community.''

Dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma, the ware­house never lost power and acted as a food dis­tri­bu­tion clear­ing­house for the area, re­ceiv­ing mas­sive amounts of food do­na­tions and shar­ing them far and wide.

“That broke my heart. So many peo­ple lost so much food,'' she said.

The food bank is still work­ing to es­tab­lish it­self in the out­ly­ing coun­ties of its ser­vice area, such as Levy County, by build­ing its net­work of part­ner non­prof­its.

“They have no idea we ex­ist,'' John­son said.

The more part­ner non­prof­its there are, the more peo­ple are served, Sweatt said. “We've only re­ally got­ten to the base of folks in need. We see more and more peo­ple who just need that ex­tra hand,'' he said.

This year Farm Share will fo­cus on hun­gry se­niors.

“There are lots of se­niors with no­body,'' he said.

McNeil said needy se­niors can be tough to iden­tify. Be­cause of their pride, many of them are re­luc­tant to seek help. Pleas­ant Grove of­fers free break­fast for se­niors ev­ery Thursday, pro­vid­ing not only a meal but so­cial in­ter­ac­tion.

“They sit and so­cial­ize. That may be their only out­ing of the day,'' he said. One of the keys to Farm Share's work is vol­un­teers. One of them is Emma Holt, who has been vol­un­teer­ing at the ware­house for 19 years, through the same man­age­ment changes McNeil wit­nessed.

Although she cried af­ter sev­eral staff de­par­tures, Holt said she paid lit­tle at­ten­tion to the drama, fo­cus­ing only on her mis­sion.

“It's about feed­ing peo­ple,'' she said. “It's about giv­ing back. I just love it.”

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