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I spent the past four days falling in love with Florida. A lifelong resident of this festival of flowers, I took an Old Florida trip and saw it new again.

Anhinga flying over Salt River (original photo)

We stayed away from the interstates, gazing on green hills laden with live oaks and pecan groves, rolling through small towns forgotten by time. Tractors tilling unending rows, clothes blowing on the line. I was surprised to see produce distribution warehouses just feet from the fields, the ground-level infrastructure that makes Florida a top agricultural source for the nation.

Summer peas (photo credit: Parksdale Farms, Dover)

On to the water. Crystal blue, gushing up through ancient limestone, a crisp relief in summer heat. We laughed and splashed like mermaids, where other tourists have for 75 years, and native people, black bear, blue heron, and bald eagle have for millennia.

Bottlenose dolphin, St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve (original photo)

And where the fresh water meets the salt, I saw baby islands, born of mangrove. A thousand boats stretched across the horizon, the floating and transient city of scallopers. A family of manatee, 1000-pound creatures, a pod of bottlenose dolphin, a green sea turtle.

Manatee, Salt River (original photo)

As we slid through the marsh, I slipped back in time, to Seminole fishermen shucking oysters on the shore, storing the meat in their pouches for trading in town. I listened to a man raised in these waters describe the help given white settlers, where to catch fish, how to navigate the low islands, the best trade routes. As he spoke, the discarded shells’ patina reflected a story now hundreds of years old.

Oyster shells, Hangover Island (original photo)

Though the beauty was bright, all was not well. I saw plastic bags caught in the mangrove roots, plastic bottles floating in the bay. The inland fields were dotted with people living on much less than those buying the new homes built where crops once grew. Amidst the verdant summer bounty and local skill, large retailers based in the state carry tomatoes from Canada, and specialty shops shelve preserves “homemade” in North Carolina. There is work to do.

Downtown Sanford (photo credit: homerestored.com)

From the Biscuit Barn in a strip mall, to zucchini boats in a downtown high-rise, the food amazing and the characters colorful, all rich with flavor and stranger than fiction. It’s no wonder the state serves as the setting for countless pop culture icons, classic literature, movies, and TV shows.

On the Saturday prior to my travels, and not far from the Florida I was courting, in a quiet town that years ago chose to be bypassed by I-4, thirty-five people sat down to the difficult and unglamorous work of building a statewide council. A group that can guide policy decisions to craft the food system we all want: equitable, affordable, profitable, sustainable.

No small task. But we’ve begun it.

Bettye D. Smith Cultural Arts Center, Sanford (photo credit: Sanfordfl.gov)

The Florida Food Policy Council members who gathered in Sanford on June 24th represented most regions of the state (only the western-most section was missing). They tackled mission, mantra, and vision, identifying foundational values as well as the value the council should provide.

Policy committee chairs presented findings from the 18-month membership tour, showing what issues the regions found most pressing, and offering clues to where the work should start. (Find that presentation here: FLFPC Policy and Issues.) Information exchange and connectivity emerged as the top trend.

Graph of findings from the FLFPC membership tour (2016-2017)

Members were nominated to the Board of Directors, and the Board elected leadership. Others volunteered as Regional Liaisons, to ensure representation and local participation in Council activities. The Board of Directors will meet monthly, the first of which takes place July 11th by phone. The roles of regional liaisons will be described, so more can be recruited, and a timeline for strategic planning set.

Attendees at the first Annual Membership Meeting/Council Launch, June 24, 2017, Sanford

As an all-volunteer organization, there is plenty of room to participate as the formation of the Council formalizes. Members at the Sanford meeting identified six regions, and the northern three are still in need of representation. The Board may soon expand the committees beyond the original set – Organization & Development, Policy, and Communications – with many leadership and participation roles to be filled.

Again, there is much work to do. But I can say with certainty that we are here out of love. For our neighbors and our families. For this magnificently diverse place we call home: its wild places, its giving ground, its mysterious waters. For its present state and its necessary future.

Anhinga taking flight over the salt flats, St. Martin Marsh Aquatic Preserve (original photo)

I am glad for the action, heartened by the interest, and looking forward to a progress we define, together.

Michelle Gomez
Secretary, FLFPC

Michelle also serves as the Director of Frenchtown Heritage Hub, Tallahassee’s only food business incubator, which supports the development of women- and minority-owned enterprise, affordable access to healthy food, and sector connectivity within the local food system. The Hub is an economic development program of the Frenchtown Neighborhood Improvement Association, a 501(c)3 corporation.

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