UF/IFAS Research Fuels the Future, Feeds the Less Fortunate
UF/IFAS research and education centers (RECs) grow fruits and vegetables all across Florida to develop growing techniques and cultivars that benefit farmers. These centers are spread from Jay in the Panhandle to Homestead in Southeast Florida.
So, what happens to all that fresh food? Much of it is donated to community food banks. Here’s a look at what they donate in a typical year.
West Florida Research and Education Center (WFREC, Milton and Jay)
At WFREC, center staffers work with Feeding the Gulf Coast and the Waterfront Rescue Mission. Combined, the three agencies donated 338,189 pounds of food to local nonprofits from 2010-2021. About 38,900 pounds came from produce harvested at the WFREC, and it all goes to feed lower-income families at Thanksgiving.
During Farm to City Week (Nov. 16-23), WFREC welcomes local high school students in ag programs on Monday to help harvest the collards, cabbage and sweet potatoes. The food is distributed on Tuesday at two community centers – one in Santa Rosa County and one in Escambia.
“Our Farm to City event is one of the best things we do each year,” says Wes Wood, director of WFREC. “Exposing high-school students to agriculture and helping provide a healthy Thanksgiving meal to 1,000 needy families in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties is gratifying.”
North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC, Marianna, Quincy, Live Oak)
Fields of peanuts, cattle, corn and vegetables, and greenhouses full of vegetables and herbs blanket the grounds of the center at NFREC-Suwannee Valley in Live Oak. There, faculty and staff deliver kale to local food banks. The first of this year’s weekly kale harvest was in March 2022 and went to Suzanne Edwards at the Florida Gateway Food Bank Catholic Charities in Lake City. Center staff have also donated food to St. Andrews and other local food banks for the past two years. Those crops include watermelon, citrus, grapes, potato, lettuce and peanut butter. Every year, the center at Live Oak donates about 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of various fresh produce to local charities.
“All of the faculty and staff here at our center feel great about being able to share high quality, nutritious food to those in our community who need and appreciate it,” says Bob Hochmuth, regional specialized Extension agent and assistant director of NFREC-Suwannee Valley. “This is a small way for UF/IFAS to partner with the communities in which we serve.”
Main UF Campus (Gainesville)
The Field & Fork gardens near Lake Alice on the main UF campus provide a lovely image surrounding the bat houses. The farm also hosts research projects on diverse subjects such as organic peanut production, heritage greens and invasive ant species control. Did you know, student volunteers at the garden grow more than 50 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers, about 10,000 pounds per year, to be donated to the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field and Fork Pantry and Gainesville area food banks?
Hastings Agricultural Extension Center
A bounty of potatoes and other regional crops await you at the Hastings Agricultural Extension Center. Staff there conservatively estimate they donate 250,000 pounds annually — mainly potatoes — to the following organizations: Feeding Northeast Florida, Farm Share, Marion County Department of Corrections, Society of St. Andrews and East Palatka Public Community (via the 4H Potato Program).
Plant Science Research and Education Unit (Citra)
At the Plant Science Research and Education Unit (PSREU) in Citra, staff harvest crops that make their way to several area food banks. PSREU donates to the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field and Fork Pantry. When school at UF is not in session or PSREU has too much of one commodity, the pantry has helped coordinate the distribution of produce to local food banks that support communities in Gainesville and surrounding counties.
Bread of the Mighty is a Gainesville pantry that has received about 18,000 pounds of produce from the PSREU, just in the past six months. PSREU has also partnered with the Society of St. Andrew, which brings volunteers together to glean peach, grape and blueberry fields for food banks throughout Florida.
“These partnerships are critical to help address hunger in our local communities. Food insecurity is an issue that is extremely important to me, and I want to support the local food banks in any way possible” says Jim Boyer, director of the PSREU.
Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (Balm)
Rich with strawberries – among other crops — the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center stretches across research fields in Balm, about 25 miles east of Tampa. Fire stations in Wimauma, Ruskin, Riverview and Sun City Center accept and redistribute strawberries from volunteers who have picked the fruit from the research fields at the GCREC. One volunteer said he donated 900 pounds of strawberries in one week in 2021 to a group home called A Kid’s Place. The Methodist Church food pantry also benefited from 50 to 70 pints jars of strawberry jam.
“Our volunteers who pick strawberries donate them to a wide range of charities and individuals in need,” says Vance Whitaker a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences and a strawberry breeder at GCREC. “We thank our volunteers for all the good they have done for the community.”