COVID has been a true challenge for nearly every organization, family, individual, and the most at-risk within our communities. In addition to adopting completely new safety guidelines for day-to-day operations, Destin Harvest has had to implement new food sourcing and distribution initiatives to meet the inflation of local hunger this year.
Food insecurity escalated to an all-time high in March. Large-scale shutdowns, food supply chain disruptions and shortages left our most vulnerable in a devastating predicament when the pandemic started.
Those within our communities that have the greatest needs were left without access to toilet paper, hand sanitizer, meats, non-perishables, and many other regular necessities. Many working families were uncertain where they would secure their next meal. Thousands in Okaloosa and Walton County were already facing food insecurity prior to COVID-19.
By partnering with other food banks, responders, and establishing new resources to assist in this major crisis, DH helped organize, supplement, and host some of the biggest feeding efforts in NWFL to date.
An immediate answer came from a food bank called Farm Share. Farm Share connects quality bulk foods for free to feeding programs throughout the state of Florida. Through the assistance of groups such as PERT, Harbor Docks, Event Tents, and many others, DH began deploying an additional 40,000 pounds of fresh and non-perishable Farm Share foods every week.
DH’s trucks were already distributing roughly 35k pounds of food a week through daily grocery store donations.
At the beginning of the year, DH expanded routine grocery store pick-ups to the WalMart, Publix, and Winn Dixie locations in Niceville, Bluewater Bay, Defuniak, and Freeport. As a beneficiary of Impact 100 of NWFL, DH received the first of 2 refrigerated trucks in April to facilitate pick-ups at the new stores.
The first refrigerated truck, a 2016 International 4300, rolled into the Destin parking lot the same morning the lift gate broke off one of DH’s primary trucks from a Farm Share load. What timing!
In addition to picking up new grocery stores, the Impact 100 truck immediately mobilized pallets of Farm Share foods to forty overwhelmed recipient feeding programs throughout Okaloosa and Walton County.
DH distributed Farm Share foods to food pantries and food box programs, shelters, churches, and then quickly organized mass drive-through food giveaways, jointly with other teams such as United Way, FWB Police Department, P.E.R.T., Event Tents, Harbor Docks, NWFL Fairgrounds, City of Destin, Food For Thought, The Matrix Community Outreach Center, and others. Thousands of people showed up to these food giveaways.
Farm Share foods were hauled in twice a week from Quincy, FL on a 40’ semi-trailer. These provisions buffered daily food deliveries to feeding programs with ample surplus to host drive-through food distributions each weekend. During the first two months of the pandemic, the drive-through distribution events would draw up to 1,200 cars.
In May DH secured a food source to provide 600 to 1,200 boxes of fresh produce each week. City Produce, a local produce distributor, was awarded a USDA Farmers to Families Food Box contract that provided DH an additional 15k to 30k pounds of boxed fresh carrots, potatoes, apples, strawberries, grapefruit, and other nutritious produce items each week. DH teamed up with United Way of Emerald Coast, FWB Police Department, and the NWFL Fairgrounds to move the produce boxes, along with surplus Farm Share foods, through multiple food giveaways at The Northwest Florida Fairgrounds.
DH moved over 325k pounds of food each month in April, May, and June. In all 13 years of food rescue and distribution, not once has DH secure over 230k pounds in one month.
The Fort Walton Beach Police Department not only volunteered at every food giveaway to assist with traffic control, they were an immense help partnering with local organizations and churches, getting food boxes directly out to at-risk neighborhoods.
By Memorial Day weekend, the number of vehicles that showed up at the events began to drop. Short-term rentals opened back up, people returned to seasonal work, and unemployment claims began processing. On limited income streams, working locals were able to afford groceries again.
In addition to daily food rescue and distribution in Destin, Santa Rosa Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Niceville, Bluewater, Crestview, Defuniak, and Freeport, DH continued to mobilize USDA boxes and sourced other food opportunities during the summer.
All year and always on a whim, DH could truly depend on the generous time, energy, vehicles, fuel, and refrigerator space of Harbor Docks and Dewey Destin’s. Harbor Docks Fish Market provided use of their 40’ tractor trailer to make multiple Farm Share runs. Their entire crew would assist DH with loading pallets onto food trucks and storing surplus in walk in coolers on pretty much a daily basis.
When DH’s trucks were unable to spread Farm Share or USDA Boxes out to smaller recipient programs, Parker Destin, a local restaurant owner, would arrive with a refrigerated van from Dewey Destin’s Seafood to help move the foods wherever they were needed. None of what DH accomplished, in terms of securing new sources of fresh and nonperishable foods to address large-scale food insecurity in a pandemic, could have been possible without these valuable partners.
DH teamed up with Crop Drop, Society of St. Andrews, and United Way of Emerald Coast in October and distributed 38k pounds of USDA’s FTF meal boxes at the NWFL Fairgrounds. These identical boxes had more than produce. There were popcorn chicken tenders, liquid eggs, cheese, butter, milk, sour cream and other nutritious and sought-after items.
The need for food will continue to grow into the holidays. Seasonal work has already shut off and those who rely on it to financially carry them will be pinching pennies until Spring and Summer. DH will continue to work extra hard to meet the needs of 40 recipient feeding programs in Okaloosa and Walton.
Food rescue and hunger relief requires local support more than ever right now. The nature of DH’s operation, capturing time-sensitive foods and distributing to feeding programs for free the same day, is tremendously efficient. It only costs DH 14 cents to distribute a meal, or one pound of food, to a feeding program. For $30 a month, DH can distribute over 210 meals to 40 feeding programs in Okaloosa and Walton County. DH needs that type of commitment from hundreds of locals monthly to maintain the operation and continue to grow throughout the panhandle.
To learn more about how you can support DH please visit www.destinharvest.org/causes to become a Harvest Advocate or donate directly to COVID 19 Hunger Response. At the time of publishing this update, both campaigns go directly to DH’s operation costs.