To Fight Waste and Hunger, Food Banks Start Cooking

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — The new kitchen was still under construction here at the Palm Beach County branch of Feeding South Florida, a food bank, when Chrissy Benoit walked through the warehouse in March. Fruits and vegetables had started arriving in unusually large amounts from nearby farms, which got her thinking about the cooking she would do when the kitchen was finished.

“Bell peppers, squashes, zucchini, cucumbers, apples — the things that you would think typically grow in abundance we see a lot of in a fairly short window of time,” said Ms. Benoit, the branch’s general manager. “It’s kind of like a ‘Top Chef’ challenge, only instead of a box, you’ve got a pallet.”

Food banks typically distribute boxes of ingredients for people in need to prepare at home. But this one has sped up construction of its kitchen during the pandemic to do something it hadn’t before: cook.

The kitchen is a single response to two huge and seemingly paradoxical problems vexing communities all over the nation: too much food, and too little. It aims to use a glut of produce and meat from local farmers, who have lost their pipeline to restaurants and other big customers, to make meals for a soaring number of people suddenly facing hunger.

Since March, demand for food has leapt by 600 percent at Feeding South Florida, the largest food bank in this agriculture-rich state. When the new kitchen opens, as early as next week, Ms. Benoit and her staff will begin preparing 10,000 hot meals a day.

At the same time, Feeding South Florida will join the ranks of food banks across the country that are trying to better serve their communities by stepping up to the stove, as unemployment spreads and the start of the harvest moves north.

Farmers donate much of the food for relief efforts, but food banks are trying to find money to at least pay them for the costs of harvesting and delivery.

The intersecting problems of growing hunger and food waste came early to South Florida, where the harvest hit its stride this year just as local farmers’ biggest customers — restaurants, hotels, school districts, Walt Disney World — shut down in response to the virus.

“When that demand stopped, the farmers had to readjust,” said Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner. Farmers and distributors have suffered more than $500 million in losses so far, she said. (Even so, with travel at a standstill, the state’s $137 billion agriculture sector has overtaken tourism as Florida’s largest industry.)

Paco Vélez, the president and chief executive of Feeding South Florida, said a local farmer donated eight semi-truck trailers of tomatoes to the food bank and its partners in March. “We’d never received that much before,” he said. “Because of its perishability, we have to move it real quick.”

The delivery was an early signal that food waste and hunger were rising on parallel tracks. The United States Department of Agriculture recently responded with $300 million a month in grants that allow food distributors to buy surplus meat, produce and dairy products and pass them to food banks and other charities.

“Families can put the meals in the freezer and pull them out when they need them,” she said. “It gives them an easy night, which everyone wants right now.”

“We’re watching what’s happening in Florida,” she said. “Our growing season is coming. We’re putting our heads together, to be sure we’re prepared.”

“The break-even is, we have to do 2,500 meals a day at each restaurant to make it cost effective,” said Stan Hays, a founder and the chief executive. “We get chefs who are like, ‘We’ve done catering for way more than 2,500 people before.’ I say, ‘Have you done it 14 days in a row?’ ”

“I’ve never seen food in that volume,” Ms. Brown said. “When they start unloading the truck, it looks like a clown car.”

Becca Self, FoodChain’s founder, is looking ahead to the coming growing season. “We’re trying to talk to farmers now about how to make it worth it for them to make that harvest,” she said. “One of our biggest crops coming up is asparagus. It’s typically grown for a high-end restaurant market — and those restaurants are gone now.”

“One of the challenges of this coronavirus environment is the demand being greater than the supply, and not being able to offer all the varieties of food to nourish a family,” said Eric Cooper, the food bank’s chief executive. Modern grocery stores “are providing more cooked, healthy meals. With our kitchens, we can offer our clients the same thing.”

Inside Feeding South Florida’s warehouse in Boynton Beach, Ms. Benoit looked on in early May as a construction crew installed vents in the kitchen.

“The goal is, how much more can we create to give people a more interesting array of options,” she said, speaking through a face mask decorated with images of blue crabs and shellfish. “There are only so many families you can just hand a 25-pound bag of apples to.”

Honey-roasted chicken, fruit salad with torn mint, and farro risotto with asparagus are some of the first dishes Ms. Benoit expects to cook. They’ll be distributed in sealed TV-dinner-style containers.

“We want to do a lot of citrus marinades,” she said. “You get a ton of flavor and it adds juiciness to the meats. We see a lot of oranges, lemons and limes around here.”

That abundance normally dries up in the summer, when locally grown food becomes scarce, said Sari M. Vatske, the executive vice president of Feeding South Florida.

She worries that better times will not return in the fall. “If the economy doesn’t rescale, the demand from the hospitality industry will be down, but the charitable need will be up,” Ms. Vatske said.

Whatever happens, Ms. Benoit said she’ll remain focused on the kitchen. “All the cooking everyone is doing right now, we’re doing 365 days a year,” she said. “We’re always food banking.”

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