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a volunteer reaches to stock cans of soup on a shelf at a food pantry

Hunger in Florida: A problem with a size and scope hard to digest

More than 3 million Florida residents are food insecure and receive food assistance. During Food Week, Oct. 11 to 16, units across UF/IFAS will join hands to raise awareness about hunger issues and engage students and the public in solving hunger across the state.

One of the first events aims to raise awareness of the difficulties of eating nutritious foods while on a tight budget. The food assistance program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides relief for some families, but often the allocated funds fall short of actual meal costs.

On average, a SNAP benefit per person, per meal, is $1.29. The average meal cost in Florida is $3.28. This amounts to an average annual food budget shortfall of $1.4 million, according to Feeding America.

UF/IFAS is challenging students, faculty, and the public to take a SNAP challenge and attempt to survive on just $4 worth of food a day or $2 a day to reflect the status in low-income countries.

“Participating in the SNAP challenge provides a first-hand understanding of how difficult it is to eat well on a very low budget,” said Adegbola Adesogan, director of the UF/IFAS Food Systems Institute.

“It can sometimes be difficult to understand what the people around us are struggling with,” said Catherine Campbell, UF/IFAS assistant professor of community food systems, who leads community engagement for the Food Systems Institute. “This includes many people in the UF community and people who we work with who we may not realize are struggling with food insecurity or rely on SNAP to feed their families. This is part of why we used the “hidden hunger” label for the event: People around us are struggling with these issues every day and we may not realize it. The SNAP challenge helps people to see what it’s like to live that way and helps to emphasize the importance of the work faculty are doing to help mitigate food insecurity and hunger.”

Food Week serves to raise awareness of food insecurity and proper nutrition. The highlights include a cooking competition only using ingredients found in the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry, as well as a canned food donation drive where competitors build a UF-themed structure from the canned food items.

“Many people don’t know about the high levels of food insecurity on campus, in Gainesville and globally,” said Adesogan. “But once they are aware, there are many ways they can give back. Contributing resources like time and funds are important, but there is more we can do. Raising awareness of healthy eating habits and helping lobby for grocery stores with healthy food options in underserved areas or food deserts, these things can all make a huge difference.”

The week wraps up with Gators Give and Serve Action Day, where students and faculty are challenged to give time or monetary donations to local charities and food pantries. Options local to Gainesville are the Field & Fork Campus Food Program, Bread of the Mighty Food bank, Feeding Florida network and Farm Share.

Founded in 2015, the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Field & Fork Campus Food Program provides sustainable agriculture and food systems education and supplies fresh produce to the Hitchcock Field & Fork Pantry, which is managed by the Dean of Students Office.  In the past year, the pantry has served more than 8,000 people and distributed 125,000 pounds of food.

“The Field & Fork Program grew almost 10,000 pounds of fresh food for students and staff this year, helping to support our community through challenging times,” said Dina Liebowitz, coordinator of the Field & Fork program. “Both vegetables and strong community bonds are grown right here on the UF campus by students learning about sustainable food systems. We also donated almost 12,000 pounds of food from neighboring farms that generously let us glean their excess produce.”

While these initiatives take a bite out of hunger on campus, efforts reach beyond campus, where Extension specialists work to bring awareness of hunger and proper nutrition to communities across the state.

“The issues of how to address food insecurity are really difficult and seemingly intractable,” Campbell said. “We hope the events this week will raise awareness and engage people to make a difference in their community.”

UF/IFAS partners include the Food Systems Institute, Food Science and Human Nutrition department and Extension. A full list of Food Week events can be found here.