Home » Features » How Treasure Coast Food Bank Is Changing Food Security, Thanks To A Bunch Of Tomatoes


How Treasure Coast Food Bank Is Changing Food Security, Thanks To A Bunch Of Tomatoes

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of the Treasure Coast Food Bank, necessity came in the form of a tomato—or rather, a whole bunch of them.

Actually, even a bunch isn’t close to accurate. Think tons of tomatoes—a million pounds, all fresh, ripe, just off the vine and ready to be used. That’s exactly what happened to Treasure Coast Food Bank’s CEO Judith Cruz a couple of years ago when the USDA and a tomato farmer in Fort Pierce donated tons of tomatoes to the non-profit organization, which serves more than 100,000 individuals each week.

And if it’s true that necessity is indeed the mother of invention, Cruz and her staff figured out how to embrace the veggie overload with a fresh and creative spin. 

“In 2010, there was a surplus of tomatoes,” Cruz says. “Of course, it was a great problem to have too much food, but when a million pounds of tomatoes come your way in a two-week period—and at the end of six previous weeks of great donations of lots of tomatoes—well, it was a bit of a tricky problem to have. Internally, we tried to figure out what to do and to find processors who could help us out.”

The staff at Treasure Coast Food Bank reached out to processing plants throughout the state of Florida, but the closest processor was in the Carolinas, and there was not an efficient method of transporting the food. Fortunately, Cruz and her staff were able to distribute the tomatoes to families, but the near-crisis got Cruz thinking.

Blackberries (top) and tomatoes are prepared as part of the Treasure Coast Food Bank and Big Red Tomato Packers’ initiative to offer millions of pounds of locally grown nutritious food to low-income children and adults.

She set up meetings and did research on processing and production facilities, and met with then-President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, about adequate and nourishing food.

Like Florida, Brazil has a long growing season and faces similar challenges but has a system in place to process large quantities of produce. Cruz learned that not only did processing the produce help provide increased nutritional food opportunities for those who are considered food insecure (meaning they simply do not know where their next meal is coming from), but it also helped to create a positive economic impact in the communities involved. Pragmatic and practical, Cruz knew immediately this was the answer. With help from her staff, board and members of the agricultural community, the Florida Agriculture and Nourishment Collaborative (FANC) was formed.

One hundred Florida farmers, more than 400 human service-feeding agencies (that feed 100,000 food-insecure people each week) and 100 Treasure Coast public schools collaborated on the project. They’ve worked together to create new, sustainable markets for their products; break barriers that keep food-insecure individuals from accessing fresh, nutritious produce; and provide certified meal-ready produce, fruits and vegetables from Florida farmers to more than 83,000 public school students. The objective for FANC is to create and utilize a new, fully-equipped local food production facility to process, prepare, value-add, flash-freeze and cryovac up to 25 million pounds of healthy produce to be distributed to area public schools and the Treasure Coast Food Bank’s partner agencies.

As it happened, the Treasure Coast Food Bank, which was founded in 1988 and incorporated in 1989, already had a facility in Fort Pierce on 25th Street; however, in order to become a food production facility, renovations were in order.

With tremendous support from the USDA, the State Department of Agriculture, Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County and local and state legislators in the four-county area serviced by the Treasure Coast Food Bank, the renovations are underway and should be completed by January. Cruz says the facility will be the first of its kind and is drawing a great deal of attention both locally and nationally as a potential pilot for other communities with similar issues.

“I can’t wait for it to start up,” she says. “Not only will it have the potential to process up to 25 million pounds of produce a year and offer nutritious, healthy options for those experiencing food insecurity, it will also provide jobs and create skills-based training opportunities for around 45 individuals.” 

By partnering with the local school systems to provide freshly frozen vegetables and fruits for the thousands of children who are fed each school day, Cruz says there are multiple benefits for the entire Treasure Coast.

“This program will be an economic driver for our local farmers, cut costs at our local schools and put people to work at the processing facility,” she says. “The Florida Agriculture and Nourishment Collaborative will take nutritious produce and create healthy food for our community, create jobs and provide a service and quality product to schools, seniors, food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the Treasure Coast. This is a winning program for everyone involved because the public-private partnership invests revenue that would otherwise be spent out of town and pumps it into our local, existing agricultural industry. It creates jobs here at home and feeds people who have limited access to fresh produce. It is the epitome of innovation within an existing, established Treasure Coast industry.”

The Collaborative’s production kitchen will include a wash/chop/packaging system to convert whole produce into pre-cut, refrigerated portions and a cook/vacuum-pack system to process raw vegetables into ready-to-use products, such as tomato sauce.

Utilizing the former warehouse facility in Fort Pierce owned by the Treasure Coast Food Bank is also a cost-saving measure for the program, which promises to be an economic engine for the Treasure Coast. Paul Jacquin & Sons is the construction company working on the renovation and retrofitting project, Cheney Brothers is supplying the equipment and J.H. Architecture worked with Cruz and her staff to bring vision and reality to the facility while still making it capable of high-production and as cost-efficient as possible.

Showing faith and enthusiasm in the ambitious new venture was philanthropist Bill Lichtenberger, the first to make a major investment ($1.5 million) in the program. “What inspired me to give was the deep, personal attachment my family and I have for Florida’s agricultural community, particularly small family farms here,” Lichtenberger says. “Farmers are indispensable to this community and all others, and I strongly believe this Food Bank program can provide local growers with the market incentives they so urgently need.”

The Treasure Coast Food Bank says the program, which will formally launch with a $3 million budget, “is built to utilize a social enterprise model. Employing revenue it will generate as the supplier of Treasure Coast School Districts’ Farm to School programs, the Food Bank will purchase and process millions of pounds of locally grown produce that currently has no market.”

By then, providing that healthy food to local public school students, children, seniors and working families who are food-insecure, it will also provide major cost-savings for Treasure Coast school districts. Cruz says, “This will enable the school districts to allocate precious dollars back into the classrooms.” She smiles, “And in addition to all that, this program will generate a more environmentally sustainable food system because the amount of time from farm-to-fork, which is known as ‘food miles,’ will have been drastically reduced.”

By working together, the Treasure Coast Food Bank, the agricultural community, area school districts and non-profit organizations that provide food for those in need, have created a perfect storm of a collaborative community. In a time when one-quarter of all youth on the Treasure Coast are considered food-insecure, this is an opportunity to provide healthy, nutritious elements to a meal and create jobs, additional income and a chance to establish a model for other communities. As the largest hunger-relief organization on the Treasure Coast, the Treasure Coast Food Bank is also proving itself to be a leader in the area of innovation, creative problem-solving and effective use of resources—both financial and human. The production facility, which opens and begins operation in January, will join nearly 20 other direct-service programs provided by the Treasure Coast Food Bank, including the Backpack Program, Mobile and School Food Pantries, a Healthy Options Program for the Elderly (HOPE) and the Summer Feeding Program to help low-income individuals purchase food they need for good health. 

For Cruz and her staff, every day starts and ends with the same purpose.

“We are here to alleviate hunger by obtaining and sharing food and other essentials in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee Counties,” Cruz says. “It’s a big goal, but we have a lot of energy, creativity and passion to put into achieving it. We can’t wait for the Florida Agriculture and Nourishment Collaborative’s Food Production Facility to open in January.”

And to think it all started with a bunch of tomatoes.

Treasure Coast Food Bank / 772.489.3034 / stophunger.org