Can fruit and veggies cut crime? Police and nonprofit are giving it a try

Whether cops helping feed the needy actually cuts down on crime is a hard thing to quantify.

But almost everyone agrees on this: A Miami police effort, working with the non-profit food distribution group Farm Share, has made cops and some poor communities they serve at least a little bit closer. Some people who once wouldn’t talk with officers on the beat now do.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said Friday morning as officers worked with Farm Share volunteers to distribute food to 1,000 people in downtown Miami. “It’s a good opportunity for us to engage with folks. We help each other out.”

Farm Share is a government-supported organization that works with the United State Department of Agriculture to distribute surplus food — much of it fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables that would be otherwise be discarded because it wasn’t up to supermarket standards. Bananas, for instance, might be too small or apples slightly discolored. Farmers get tax credits in exchange for food they donate.

Last year, Farm Share provided 52 million pounds of food to families from Homestead to Jacksonville. In Miami-Dade alone in 2017, Farm Share distributed food on 58 occasions.

Cops started joining the effort after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., under an Obama administration community police initiative. The program, called Farm Share Community Policing and Crime Prevention, was developed three years ago with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It’s goal: Reducing crime and improving law enforcement and community relations in “at-risk” neighborhoods across the state of Florida.

Farm Share believes that if people in at-risk communities are provided nutritious food to help with basic needs, it should pay off with reduced crime over time. Other major U.S. cities have similar programs. In Los Angeles, the police department’s Community Safety Partnership operates sports clinics and farmer’s markets in several public housing projects in the Watts and East Los Angeles neighborhoods.

The distribution of food is particularly important in Miami, which yearly ranks has having one of the biggest — if not the largest — gap between wealthy and poor in the country. Finding low-income housing has become almost impossible. A 2016 report from Bloomberg News found that securing a middle-income job in Miami was difficult, with most jobs paying either very well or poorly.

During Friday morning’s chill in which temperatures dipped into the low 40s, Farm Share set up food kiosks under blue canvas tops on Northwest Third Street just outside Miami’s main downtown police headquarters. More than 50 people braved the 40-degree temperatures, waiting in line a half hour before the food was handed out. Police officers, firefighters and Farm Share workers helped them to the line and handed them food.

Despite the chill, Farm Share said that by day’s end 956 heads of households had walked away with much-needed food.

Airl Jackson, a 66-year-old retired nursing assistant took the bus several miles from her Northwest Miami-Dade home to downtown Miami. She learned about the Farm Share program through a senior citizens program at Liberty City’s Charles Hadley Park. Jackson’s monthly Social Security check, she said, is her main source of income.

“You learn how to manage,” she said. “You go to senior citizen’s dinners. Eat Early Bird specials. This is so important, so very helpful.”

Also grabbing poultry, vegetables, bananas, apples and some canned goods, was 11-year-old David Bergert along with his sisters Dara, 8 and Durell, 6. David carried a big brown box while his dad, also named David Bergert, tossed food in. Dad works as a valet a few nights a week at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. He’s like more work, but said he can’t find any.

“I’m picking some up for my sister also. My wife and I work, but we live in low-income housing and it’s tough.”

Gussie Flynn, who now directs marketing and communications for Farm Share after working helping people at homeless shelters, spent the morning talking to residents and taking pictures. She was pleased with the response on both sides.

“We’re rescuing food that would otherwise be dumped in a landfill,” she said. “It’s a way of getting officers involved with the community. Most of these people would never talk to police. But police and the community are now working side–by-side, instead of across the street from each other.”