The new chief of Florida's food banks, Robin Safley, is a former top state agriculture official who has led efforts to bolster nutrition programs for schoolchildren.
"All the food banks in the state are really excited about having Robin in her leadership capacity," said Jim Croteau, interim executive director of Second Harvest of the Big Bend, one of 14 regional food banks Safley will oversee. "She's creative, she's energetic --- and I think she's going to bring us to another level in the state."
After five years as division director for food, nutrition and wellness at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Safley is now executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks, which feeds more than 3.6 million people yearly.
About 3.3 million Floridians are "food insecure," meaning they don't always know where their next meals are coming from. That's 17 percent of the population --- including 1.1 million children.
"So many times we, or policy leaders or citizens, talk about health in one category, academic achievement in another category and then food in another," Safley told The News Service of Florida. "I see them all as relevant to each other, and food is really at the center of that."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam praised the appointment in a statement last week, calling Safley a nationally recognized leader in school nutrition. He credited her with "drastically" expanding the summer feeding program for students, Summer BreakSpot, by nearly 42 percent after the department took it over in 2012. He also said she integrated the child nutrition programs at his agency with those at the state Department of Education.
"For more than five years, Robin has aggressively tackled hunger and nutrition in Florida," Putnam said. "She has successfully managed the complex transformation of an enormous program to our department without a hiccup."
The Florida Association of Food Banks includes 14 regional centers affiliated with the national anti-hunger group Feeding America, according to the association's website. The state network provides food to more than 2,500 non-profit agencies with more than 31,500 volunteers. In 2014, the network distributed 197 million pounds of food to Florida families --- most including children under 18 or seniors over 70.
"We are really having to redefine what poverty is," Safley said. "We can't forget those working poor … people who do have a fulltime job or maybe multiple jobs, and are still having a hard time meeting the needs of their family around food and may or may not qualify for government assistance."
A graduate of Florida State University, Safley has a bachelor's degree in communications and a law degree from the FSU College of Law. She said hunger is a complex problem that cannot be fought without being understood.
"Feeding America at the national level has started saying, 'Look --- it's not enough to just hand out food. We really have to understand why people are in the line in the first place,'" she said. "And I've often said --- and Commissioner Putnam has said --- that you cannot look at hunger without looking at poverty."
Her vision for the food banks also incorporates her background in agriculture and her reliance on data in creating strategy.
"That's something I really want to hit the ground running on --- forecasting into the future, creating a more sustainable supply chain instead of some of the pops you see happening when there's abundance, and all of a sudden, you're overwhelmed, maybe, with tomatoes," she said. "Let's look at that throughout the whole year, and then … maybe cut it, dice it, so that we can have it for a longer period of time."
Croteau said the food banks had always had a good relationship with the agriculture department, "but I think her experience there is going to give her a broader perspective than we might have had in the past."