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FL group helps thousands

Farm Share may have suffered serious damage from Hurricane Wilma, but its leaders won't let that slow them down.

BY HEATHER MOYER | FLORIDA CITY, Fla. | November 3, 2005

"We've become a hub of disaster relief because many agencies don't have the storage that we do."

—Patricia Robbins

One might not think boxes cost much money - but the Farm Share organization in South Florida lost $600,000 worth of boxes to Hurricane Wilma.

And that's not all Wilma took away from the non-profit dedicated to feeding the hungry in Florida. The hurricane's high winds knocked over tractor trailers, tore off sections of roof from several Farm Share warehouses, flooded offices and damaged some giant storage freezers.

Yet despite the damage, Farm Share was quickly back to feeding low income residents and supplying food to other non-profits a day after Wilma roared through. "We've done a lot of work in the past week putting things back up," said Patricia Robbins, founder and chairperson of Farm Share.

Walking through Farm Share's Speedway warehouse, Robbins pointed out all the various food they are distributing and storing. Pallets full of powdered milk, fruit juice, pudding and more sit in rows. Forklifts buzzed through the warehouse moving boxes of fresh vegetables.

Only days after Wilma, the warehouse was already receiving and managing truckloads of donated food. The agency is structured to receive donated food from farmers and businesses, but post-disaster times see even more donations from organizations wanting to help.

Farm Share is also a member of Florida's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (FLVOAD) and is helping store other members' food donations before distribution.

"We've become a hub of disaster relief because many agencies don't have the storage that we do," explained Robbins.

Farm Share already serves 21 million meals each year without the hurricanes - but the agency is not new to the disaster recovery field. Robbins said the agency has helped out each season since its inception 14 years ago.

Last year the organization sent out 44 truckloads of food to areas of the state ravaged by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan. Yet this is the first time the Farm Share facilities were severely impacted by a storm. Robbins credits volunteers, staff and the agency's partnership with the Florida Dept. of Corrections (DOC) for the quick cleanup of scattered debris and flooded offices. The partnership allows for a DOC officer on site to supervise the inmates allowed to help staff the warehouse.

But Robbins also knows the recovery from Wilma will take a long time. Around Farm Share's warehouses in Florida City is a large population of migrant farm workers. Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma wiped out many of the crops and flooded many of the workers' homes. Farm Share serves anyone who comes asking for food, said Robbins, regardless of immigration status.

Richard Perez, general office manager for Farm Share, worries that the farm workers too often fall through the cracks and are forgotten. The majority of the families were already in extreme poverty before the hurricanes struck.

"The traditional family can prepare for a hurricane by boarding up their homes and getting groceries and having some sort of savings built up," said Perez, who is also vice-chair of Florida Regional Interfaith/Interagency Emergency Network in Disaster (FRIEND).

"For migrant workers, there's frequently no home to board up and no extra income for buying food. They need help before, during and after a storm. That's why we're here."

To continue helping families like those of the migrant workers, Farm Share will need help rebuilding its damaged warehouses. Perez and Robbins both said that monetary donations are the best way to help the agency.

"Money is the best way to help because it allows us to fill the gaps and needs correctly," said Perez.

Inside the Florida City warehouse blue tarps are spread over the offices and carpet has been ripped up from the floors. Taking a moment to survey the warehouse, Perez quickly moved Robbins to avoid water dripping from one of the holes in the ceiling.

"We have to do some major repairs," laughed Robbins. "We're lucky that not much water has come in yet, but it won't help when the rain starts again."

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