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Hands to harvest, food system challenges during COVID-19

With disruptions to our food system at nearly every level, food banks need community support. UF/IFAS Extension Lake County donated 64 pounds of fresh produce to the Lake Cares food pantry this week, with more to come.

“The gardens are unaware of the pandemic, they keep growing and are ready to be harvested,” said Megan Mann, UF/IFAS Extension Lake County Extension Director. “We would hate to see this food go to waste, so we wanted to find a way to get it to people in our community that are hungry.”

The gardens, planted by UF/IFAS Extension Florida Master Gardener Volunteers, are used to teach residents how to grow their own food. Typically maintained and harvested by volunteers Jack Pounders, Tyrone Hill and Keith Moore alongside Ron Musgrave, Discovery Gardens landscape technician, the gardens require weekly attention. Due to current COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers cannot work in the gardens and a lot of produce is available for harvest.

“The garden is growing quickly – we plan to make weekly or twice weekly donations as spring and summer crops come in,” said Brooke Moffis, UF/IFAS Extension Lake County horticulture agent. “The produce will vary by season, but we will have a lot of produce that will need to be harvested including tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and melons.”

“There is an enormous cost associated with harvesting food,” Mann said. “We had a very small piece of land and it still took hours to harvest. We are fortunate we have the staff available to conduct the harvest and make these donations, but it was a reminder to us of the struggles our farmers are facing right now.”

Crops were planted weeks or months ago for today’s harvest. When planted, farmers were not expecting the pandemic we face now. Farmers expected to sell their crops to various markets including the tourism industry that drives Florida.

With these businesses closed due to COVID-19, the fresh produce has nowhere to go. The entire food system does not pivot that quickly, so getting those foods into consumers’ hands when they typically sell commercially can be a challenge, Mann said.

“We have a very complex food system and the COVID-19 crisis has brought that to everyone’s attention,” Mann said. “It takes a lot to get food from a farm to your kitchen table and I think there is an opportunity for everyone to have a greater understanding of this.”

The UF/IFAS Extension Lake County office has been closed to the public since March 28, but faculty are offering most services virtually. To find out more information, visit their Facebook page.

“We are still working to find solutions and solve problems for Lake County residents,” Mann said. “UF/IFAS Extension is busier than ever.”

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