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Crop freeze concerns food bank

MANATEE — January’s protracted cold snap and the return of frigid temperatures this week have turned Manatee’s agricultural community into a grumpy group.

Just ask John Cucci, general manager of C&D Fruit and Vegetable Company.

If you dare.

“It’s just been ridiculous,” Cucci said when asked about the condition of his crops. “There are a lot of people not in very good moods. You might get some people hanging up on you.”

Seeing and hearing farmers in despair gives those who count on their bounty reason for alarm.

Chief among them are social service agencies who help feed the hungry. The county’s leading food distributor has begun to worry about the collateral fallout of the freeze.

The local agricultural community contributes as much as 100,000 pounds of produce per month to the Food Bank of Manatee. The donations are the lone source of fresh produce for some clients of the food bank and its more than 100 affiliated agencies, including the Salvation Army and Our Daily Bread soup kitchen.

“Donations aren’t really down yet,” said Ellen Campbell, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels PLUS, which runs the food bank. “That’ll wait until the produce is done growing. We’re the last one to feel it.

“The only thing we know for sure is there are hard times ahead.”

Starting Jan. 3, Manatee County endured a record 11 straight days that saw the overnight low temperature dip below 40 degrees. The resultant crop damage led to a federal disaster declaration for 60 of Florida’s 67 counties, including Manatee and Sarasota.

According to Cucci — whose facility donated more than 73,000 pounds of cucumbers, squash, peppers and other vegetables to the food bank in 2009 — there is bound to be a negative effect for charities.

“If there’s nothing growing, everything that comes in goes out to your customers,” he said. “There’s nothing left to give.”

The Global Organic Specialty Source, a wholesale produce distributor based near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, is the food bank’s leading donor. It gave more than 143,000 pounds, or 71.5 tons, of everything from leafy green vegetables to berries to citrus in 2009.

According to Vice President Ronni Blumenthal, Global Organic has a no-waste philosophy. Produce that is slightly irregular or has too short a shelf life to ship to market is offered to employees or donated to the food bank, Blumenthal said.

“It’s not so much that we’re cutting back (on donations); it’s that we don’t have a lot of volume coming in. Because so much was lost, our inventory is tight,” she said.

Global Organic receives produce from growers across the country, and Blumenthal said nearly every type of crop has been hurt by winter weather. Heavy rain in California has been as catastrophic as Florida’s cold. The only crop that thrived: apples from the Northwest.

“It’s really been a rough winter all around,” Blumenthal said.

But Global Organic is committed to helping the food bank as much as it can.

“We really think it’s important the food bank should have fresh produce to give out and not just canned food,” Blumenthal said.

While produce is important to the food bank, Campbell said fewer donations wouldn’t cripple its efforts.

“The produce is a luxury item for us,” she said. “We don’t have the money to go out and buy it. If the shortage happens, we just couldn’t provide the produce for people.”

Bruce Shackelford, the president of 4 Star Tomato in East Manatee, said the full effect of the freeze won’t be known until harvesting of most crops begins in April. The grower donated almost 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, potatoes and watermelons to the food bank this past year.

He said many of his vegetables weren’t planted when the cold snap hit.

“Mainly, it’s delaying everything,” Shackelford said. “Most of the crops in this area were either underground or not planted yet. But it’s making it harder to make the crop.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years, and I’ve never gone through that many continuous days in the 20s or 30s.”

The concern over the expected produce shortage has created an urgency for at least one activist.

Missy Plum, the coordinator of Farmers and Hunters Feed the Hungry, has collected 1,034 pounds of meat to donate to the food bank. But she said she asked her husband and a son to pick all the lemons and grapefruits from her backyard to prevent waste. The family donated 67 pounds of fruit to the food bank.

Plum said it’s that type of action from ordinary citizens that can make the produce shortage less severe for Manatee County’s needy.

“My challenge to every person in our community and others is this: look around you, see if you have something you can give,” Plum said. “Maybe it’s fruit off the many trees we have in our area, or maybe it’s some extra vegetables from a garden.”

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