'Win-win': Publix to donate extra food, milk it buys from struggling farmers

Timothy Fanning
Sarosta Herald-Tribune

LAKELAND, Fla. – Publix announced recently that it will purchase fresh produce and milk to help farmers who have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

The supermarket chain will donate these products to Feeding America member food banks operating in the communities they serve. The company estimates 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk will be purchased and donated in the program’s first week.

The initiative is expected to run several weeks and will support Florida produce farmers, southeastern dairy farmers and the growing number of families looking to Feeding America for fresh fruit, vegetables and milk during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Florida-based grocery chain’s move has met with national acclaim, including a “thank you” message tweeted Thursday by Vice President Mike Pence.

“As a food retailer, we have the unique opportunity to bridge the gap between the needs of families and farmers impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Publix CEO Todd Jones.

The crop losses to Florida’s agricultural industry for mid-April alone is estimated to be $522 million, with that number expected to rise as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the dairy and the livestock industry.

The loss has created a domino effect through the farming industry, Florida’s second-largest economic driver. It yields $155 billion in revenue and supports about two million jobs. Multigenerational farms are in danger of closing for good.

Publix’s initiative could be a welcome, albeit temporary, relief for Florida farmers.

“I think it’s a fantastic, great publicity move on their part,” said Gene McAvoy, the associate director for stakeholder relations for the University of Florida/IFAS extension. McAvoy works to connect farmers with local food banks.

“It not only gives farmers a psychological boost, but it also will make the general public feel good,” McAvoy said. “Many people are feeling lost, feeling like there is nothing they can do to help.”

Many growers have donated produce to food banks, but there’s a limit on what the nonprofits can accept, and storage is an issue for perishable fruits and vegetables. With some measured success, others are selling directly to customers or ramping up U-pick fruit weekends.

Despite those efforts, as much as 80% of Florida’s produce is going to waste. Farmers typically lose between 10% to 12%.

Meanwhile, supermarket chains, including Publix, continue to purchase and sell imported fruit and other produce from Mexico. Those products are typically cheaper and have for decades left Florida growers out in the cold because they cannot compete.

Lately, however, Publix has made a deliberate move to support and buy from Florida growers during the pandemic, McAvoy said.

But the support from Publix could be too little, too late for some Florida growers.

“It’s a great gesture but frankly, it’s five weeks late,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of Dimare Ruskin Inc., one of the larger producers of tomatoes in the country.

Florida is the nation’s second-largest producer of seasonal specialty crops, including tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, cucumbers and peppers. Many of these products have already been harvested. The season is over and many farmers have already adjusted to what many are calling “the new normal.”

Restaurant, school and hotel closings have inflicted collateral damage on Florida produce farmers and dairy farmers – with many being forced to plow over thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables grown in Florida, and others dumping milk and breaking eggs as closures continue to destroy the demand for those products.

“Dairy is perhaps the most requested but least provided item in food banks,” said Colleen Larson, UF/IFAS regional dairy extension agent in south Florida. “Many dairy farmers would have been more than willing to donate the milk but couldn’t afford to process it.”

That’s where Publix comes in. The supermarket chain has its own processing plants scattered across Florida. It also purchases milk from local dairy farmers, including Dakin Dairy, the last dairy farm in Manatee County, and sells it at area stores.

Joe Wright, the president of Southeast Milk Inc, called Publix’s decision a “win-win for our farmers who are feeling the impact of decreased demand and the families who are in need of nutrient-rich milk during this pandemic.”