Thursday, September 26, 2013

Local Organizations Work to Feed their Neighbors

Local Organizations Work to Feed their Neighbors
Story and photographs by José Pérez

Lost in the South Beach glitz and tropical glamor usually associated with South Florida is the fact that hunger is a no stranger to many people that live and work in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe Counties.   A recent national study, in fact, shows that Miami-Dade is one of the United States’ hungriest counties. 

Every month, however, food distribution and feedings are held in different parts of the area to address this serious need.    For example, last Saturday morning, Farm Share teamed up with Christ Fellowship Church, State  Representative Frank Artiles (R-118), and student volunteers from Miami Jackson Senior High School to distribute food at Jackson High.  Within the first hour, 300 families received bananas, romaine lettuce, sweet potatoes, plantains, potatoes, frozen lamb, and shelf stable foods such as rice, beans, dried fruit at no charge.   A few hours later, over 700 people had taken food home to their families, said Farm Share’s Mia DeVane.

“Farm Share is the largest fresh produce program in Florida and the only statewide and local food bank program that does not charge a fee for any food it provides to community organizations,” said DeVane.

While this week’s Farm Share event was in Allapattah, the organization, which is based in Homestead, holds similar activities in different parts of the community and they are not alone.

On the third Saturday of every month, a proud group of women in Opa-locka's depressed Magnolia Gardens neighborhood pull from their own humble resources to feed their neighbors. Setting up shop in front of an abandoned grocery store, the group, which is not affiliated with any church or non-profit and receives no help from any government entity, feeds hot meals to single mothers and their children, elderly bachelors, homeless people and shut-in seniors.  Each month, the group, which calls itself GRUB (which stands for “Giving Regardless, United Bodies”) feeds more than 100 people – for free.

The two most prominent faces of GRUB are Diana Smith and her daughter, Kim.   

GRUB feeds people out of their own pockets, from their own meager resources supplemented every now and then with small yet appreciated donations from entities like the South Florida Home Childcare Association.

All of the food prepared is homemade and served across the street from an empty lot on a blighted stretch of Ali Baba Avenue, just blocks from the Opa-locka Police Department.  “We just get together and feed the neighborhood,” said Diana Smith as music played and dominoes smacked on table tops behind her.

During one Saturday’s feeding, Kim Smith went to drop off heaping plates of food to shut-ins in a semi-abandoned building owned by a local church that is both next door neighbor and landlord for that sad building.  As she drove to and from, the younger Smith kept the windows to her car rolled down so she could call out to passerby – most by name – reminding them to come by and “grab a plate.” 

All of this from a woman who was out of work when she, her mother, and other friends and relatives decided to feed their neighbors in Spring of this year.

Why? “90% of the time, people don’t eat,” said Smith.  She added that many of those that come to eat each month are illiterate, isolated, or whose health insurance is lacking.  “We are the forgotten.”

Data published in a recently released study by Feeding America supports Smith’s observations. 

Feeding America found that about sixteen and a half percent of the residents of both Broward and Palm Beach counties are food insecure while less than 13% of the people that live in Monroe County and almost 18% of the people that live in Miami-Dade County meet the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s criteria for food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA as having “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

The percentage of people with inconsistent or limited food access in the state of Florida is 18.7%. 

Importantly, many of those people in the four county area of South Florida that are considered “food insecure” live above the income threshold established to determine eligibility for food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, (more commonly known as food stamps).  In short, they make too much money to be able to qualify for SNAP and “other food programs.”   How many people in South Florida are food insecure but do not qualify for federal help?   The numbers for Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe are 39%, 34%, 20%, and 32% respectively.

The number of children that are food insecure but do not meet eligibility requirements for SNAP or the Women, Infant & Children’s food program, or WIC, jumps significantly in Miami-Dade where over a third of the children are caught in between a heavy rock and a hungry place.  

“Farm Share absorbs the people that don’t get food stamps,” said Beatriz Lopez, Executive District Secretary to Artiles.

In addition to the bigger community events held each month, Farm Share also serves hundreds of “non profits that pick up food from our facilities and take it back to their communities,” from Monday through Friday, said DeVane.

According to DeVane, “Farm Share has provided more than $40 million in food to those in poverty in Florida” in 2013. State Representative Artiles added that, by reaching out to give food to people in need, Farm Share “saves produce that would be discarded” by farmers because many super markets do not want fruits or vegetables that do not meet a certain aesthetic criteria or what DeVane called “minor imperfections.” 

Giving the extra or unmarketable produce to Farm Share can earn “up to 200% tax credit for farmers,” said DeVane.

*To read this article as it appeared in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Urban League Education Forum Series Gets Off to Heated Start

Urban League Education Forum Series Gets Off to Heated Start
Story & fotos by José Pérez

Last week, a first-time partnership between different Urban League chapters across Florida kicked off a series of town hall style meetings to discuss an increasingly talked-about aspect of education both in the state and nationwide.   The “We Care” campaign started the first trio of a scheduled eight fori being held in cities in South, Central and North Florida.  Organized by local chapters of the Urban League and proponents of "school choice," The campaign had its first meeting at the Urban League of Miami amid a packed house of concerned residents, curious citizens, and members of the United Teachers of Dade. 

The Miami meeting was followed on consecutive nights by meetings in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale respectively.   

While the panelists assembled for the fori were fairly consistent, the tone and timbre of each meeting was markedly different.   Whereas the Palm Beach edition was quieter and the Fort Lauderdale forum was reserved and mostly light-hearted, the Miami meeting was contentious and inflamed as members of the audience, which was comprised mostly of teachers, and panelists clashed verbally and ideologically over each side’s perspective on the future of public education in Florida.   

T. Willard Fair, long-time head of Miami’s Urban League, opened the meeting with a outline for not just the first meeting but all 8 events throughout the state.  “The recipe for survival happens to be education,” said Fair who pointed out that “this is the first time that all 8 Urban Leagues” from Florida have coordinated efforts in such a manner.

Another panelist was Isha Haley, Executive Director of Black Floridians CARE.   Haley’s organization is focused, she said, on leadership in charter schools.  “We want to prepare black leaders for charter schools.”

“Leadership starts in our community,” said Haley who added that she has been “building this organization for a year and a half” but its origins actually date back over fifteen years earlier.  According to state records, Black Floridians CARE is the amended name of Floridians for School Choice.  Fair has been on the Board for the corporation since 2004. 

Nationwide, the Urban League has been supportive of charter schools dating back to 2000 when the National Urban League expressed its support of a pro-charter school bill in Washington State.   The Urban League has charter schools in Madison, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh.

As the tension in the Miami meeting escalated, Haley insisted that “we’re not here to advocate for any particular option” yet the composition of the panel was telling.   Fedrick Ingram, President United Teachers of Dade, observed that “we have a large private interest here.  On this stage there all types of charter school interests.”

At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Haley restated her nonprofit’s goal of “creating talent pipeline” for black leaders of charter schools.    At this meeting, she mentioned that plans were under way for a proposed T. Willard Fair Fellowship which would identify 15 fellows to learn the business of and be groomed for opening and operating black-owned charter schools.   Haley and others were mum on the details promising, instead, more details leading up the expected launch of the program in January 2014

Troy Bell of StudentsFirst, shed light on Haley’s and Fair’s focus.   Bell said that there are currently 5,000 charter schools in the United States.  Only 3% of those charter schools are black-owned and/or –operated but 60% of the students enrolled in charter schools nationwide are black. 

Another panelist chosen for the We Care Campaign was Glen Gilzean from Step Up for Students.  “We provide scholarships” to private schools, Gilzean said, “for those families that want a religious education.”

Antonio White, a teacher and member of the UTD present at the Miami meeting, was not happy with what he was hearing.  “I don’t want my public dollars to go to private companies.”

At the Fort Lauderdale meeting, Shirley Baker asked Gilzean about the source of Step Up for Students’ funding.  “We raise the money through private donations” in exchange for tax credits, he replied.  

Federal tax documents from 2011 indicate that Step Up for Students spent $178,207 in on “lobbying” expenses.

Gilzean then touted a benefit of the private school option.  “Charters have to go through the school district. The State of Florida is really friendly to private schools.”  He added that there is  “no oversight…you can open up your own school in 30 days.”

The biggest source of tension seemed to be ideological.  

In his opening remarks in Fort Lauderdale, Bell mentioned “the founder of our organization” but did not actually say her name.  When the name of StudentsFirst’s founder, the controversial Michelle Rhee, was mentioned by White during the Miami meeting, Fair refused to indulge it saying that she was not present at the meeting.  Books with her name and photograph, however, were prominently displayed at a StudentFirst information table at the Fort Lauderdale meeting.

In an article published in late 2012 by, StudentsFirst “backed” 105 candidates for political office that election and over 85% were conservatives.    According to income tax returns filled by StudentsFirst in Pennsylvania in 2011, “the purpose of Students First…is to support political candidates who are running for statewide office…who support charter schools and voucher programs.”

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study was cited by organizers on one side of the issue and supporters of public education on the opposite side.  “Only 17% of charter schools do better than public schools,” said Catherine Kim Owens, a parent in attendance, referencing the CREDO report.  Bell disagreed saying that the study showed that that figure was only for the first three years that a charter school is open.

Former Broward School Superintendent Jim Notter, who abruptly retired in 2011 in the aftermath of a grand jury charges of rampant corruption during his tenure, was also present at the Fort Lauderdale meeting.   Notter, who is also a member of the Urban League of Broward County’s Board of Directors, was visibly impressed by the discussion and enthusiastically offered his support to Haley “I’m available to you because you have a solution.” Before the meeting adjourned, Notter also commented on another benefit to school choice.  “You don’t have to deal with teachers’ unions.”

One teacher who did not want to give her name she she left the Miami meeting “feeling empty.”   

“What purpose did this meeting serve?”  

The teacher, who said she came to the forum trying to find out “what resources are there for the parents” said she was disappointed in the event.  “I could’ve been at home grading papers.”

*To read the article as it was printed in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.

Community’s drive for cityhood threatened by annexation plan

Community’s drive for cityhood threatened by annexation plan
Story & photographs by José Pérez

NORTH CENTRAL MIAMI-DADE – Efforts to create a new city out of a large area of unincorporated North Miami-Dade County are running into new obstacles. 

After waiting for a decade-long moratorium on incorporation to be lifted, supporters of the North Central Dade Area Municipal Advisory Committee (NCDA-MAC) say that neighboring municipalities are making moves to take annex key areas of the proposed city.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Gardner, senior pastor of Northside Church of God, a member of NCDA’s steering committee, said that Opa-locka has openly declared its intention to annex 822 acres of land located south of Northwest 127th Street, east of Northwest 27th Avenue, north of Northwest 107th Street and west of Northwest 37th Avenue. 

The area, listed in Opa-locka city records as “Annexation Area B,” sits in the northwest corner of the incorporation area originally outlined by NCDA leaders several years earlier.  

Opa-locka’s plans to annex the area are not mere speculation.  “They started their process and they are moving forward with it,” Gardner said.

Opa-locka’s Assistant City Manager David Chiverton confirmed that the annexation plan was approved earlier this summer by city leaders.  “Our [city] commission has approved the order,” said Chiverton, who added that there is currently “no timeline” as to when Opa-locka will advance the annexation process.

The motivation for opalocka city officials is simple: increased revenue. According to an annexation report published by the City of Opa-locka, acquiring the land would "expand city boundaries" to include commercial and industrial properties.  According to the report, this expansion is expected to generate revenue via "impact fees for development, code enforcement, [and] fines" in the annexed areas.

Mack Samuel, a member of the NCDA-MAC, said the area for Application B, which is primarily commercial, with warehouses in abundance, is estimated to be worth $266 million in taxable value annually – which would severely deplete the tax base of the proposed city.   Because there are no known residents living in that area, there is little to hinder Opa-locka – or other areas – from annexing it.

Ed Lopez, president of Antilles Freight Corporation, said that Hialeah has also expressed in interest in acquiring the area that Opa-locka is trying to annex ahead of any incorporation by the NCDA-MAC.  Calls to the City of Hialeah were not returned for confirmation before press time.

According to the Miami-Dade County Charter, a referendum on annexation or incorporation is not needed if less than 250 people live in the area in question.

Alarmed by the threat to their plans to create what would be Florida’s second-largest majority-black city after Miami Gardens, NCDA leaders addressed the Opa-locka City Commission in late July.

“Our position was to inform them that our process has been ongoing for the past 10 years.  We wanted to make sure that they were aware of that. Our desire was for them to put the brakes on it,” Gardner said.

Gardner and Mack were not alone in opposing the annexation plans in the Opa-locka Commission chambers. 

Some business owners in Application Area B also spoke out against the proposal.  Lopez said that the business community in Gratigny Industrial Park, where his business has been since the late 1990's, was not at all happy with the plan to bring them into Opa-locka.  The biggest concern cited by Lopez would be a spike in property taxes for him and his neighbors.   According to Miami-Dade County records, the millage rate for unincorporated Miami-Dade County – which the business are now paying – is under $2 for every $1,000 or taxable property value, whereas the rate for Opa-locka is just above $9, second-highest in the County behind Biscayne Park ($9.50).

“It doesn’t make any economic sense to be in Opa-locka,” Lopez said.

Lopez, Gardner, Mack and Felix Lasarte, an attorney representing Lopez and other business owners, all doubted that the anticipated steep increase in taxes will yield a corresponding improvement increase in services if the Opa-locka annexation effort succeeds.

Chiverton pointed out that the area is already being served by the Opa-locka police department. He acknowledged what he called “a cross-section of concerns” presented to the city commission related to cost and financial impact for local businesses. Water and sewage services for the area would picked up by Opa-locka if the annexation is approved.

“What services are they providing to offset” the increase in taxes, asked Lopez.   “They promised one more police officer but that won’t make a difference.”

For Opa-locka city leaders, the move has benefits for residents,  Chiverton said. He sees the proposed annexation as a way to create jobs by attracting businesses with manufacturing and assembly specialties.

“The interest of the city is to complete what the commission approved,” he said

Lopez disagreed, saying, “It’s going to be a ghost town.”

Asked if business owners will consider suing to stop the annexation, Lasarte said that “all options are on the table.”

“The property owners intend to protect themselves.  They want to have a say in the process,” he said.

The NCDA-MAC also wants to ensure that any annexation move is decided by residents.

“It is important that the area be given an opportunity to incorporate,” Gardner said.

“The citizens deserve the right to vote,” Mack added.        

For the record, NCDA organizers do not yet know what its mill would be.  When asked, Lopez said he prefers that the area remain unincorporated but he had to "choose from the lesser of three evils," he'd pick Hialeah because their millage rate is 6.3.

*To read this article as it appeared in the South Florida Times, please click on this urlink.