We think we know what the face of hunger looks like when we see starving children featured on television from countries around the globe. But we need to expand our thinking of what hunger is— what the face of hunger looks like— because it is in our backyards, our elementary schools, and our communities right here in Florida.
One out of six Floridians is defined as food insecure. That means three million people across our state don’t have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. And the rate is even higher among children, with one in four children being food insecure, according to Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief charity.
Food insecurity in Florida is not because of inadequate quantities of food, however. Here in Florida, farmers and ranchers produce an abundance of food during our year-round growing season. We produce nearly 300 different commodities on 47,000 farms statewide. The challenge of hunger in Florida is not one of supply, but of logistics, access, and distribution.
Many organizations, including nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and local governments, are working to address these challenges. Here at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, we have been working with them, evaluating the possibility of expanding farmers markets to meet demands in rural areas, partnering with others to improve affordability of healthy produce, and connecting food banks to farmers who can share their surplus.
Collectively, we’ve made great progress in improving the health and wellness of Florida’s communities, but there’s much more work to do, and resources are limited. We must maximize the use of our resources by targeting the communities that need it most. We developed a new tool to help us do just that: We call it, “Florida’s Roadmap to Living Healthy.”
This interactive, online map overlays data available on health and wellness by census tract, including food deserts, food stamp-eligible households, and death rates attributable to diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The map also displays the assets that are available to assist communities in need, including food banks, food pantries, farmers markets, child nutrition programs, health centers, and free clinics. With this information, we can identify the communities with the greatest health risks associated with poor nutrition and determine gaps in resources available to assist them.
Our map uses Geographic Information Systems, or GIS technology. It’s so sophisticated that you can view the data from the statewide view all the way down to the street level. This is the first time that any state has employed GIS technology to address the hunger crisis on a statewide level.
None of this data is new. The mapping tool is just a new way of looking at the data we have available to better target communities in need, evaluate strategies, and measure progress. The possibilities of this map are endless.
Our collaborative use of this tool can help us not only improve the health and wellness of Florida communities, but have a lasting impact on the lives of Florida residents. Ultimately, by improving access to nutritious foods in communities with the most needs, we can bend the health care cost curve and improve academic performance as well as workforce productivity.
We live in a state where we grow an abundance of healthy foods, any of which your doctor would be happy for you to eat. Yet, one in six Floridians do not have reliable access to this bounty. So let’s put our bright minds together, take advantage of the information we have available with this new tool, and stretch our resources to serve the communities that need help the most. Hunger, in Florida, can be solved. To explore “Florida’s Roadmap to Living Healthy,” go to www.FreshFromFlorida.com/RoadmaptoHealth.
story by COMMISSIONER ADAM H. PUTNAM
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam H. Putnam is Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and oversees school lunch and other nutrition programs at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.