BELLE GLADE — Mayor Steve Wilson, frustrated by all the contention about a West Palm Beach nonprofit feeding program declining a donation from three sugar companies, says it’s highly inappropriate and wrong to drag in political battles when the objective is to assist the needy.
The Lake Okeechobee News on May 6 published a chastising letter written by Palm Beach County District 6 Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and signed by Mayor Wilson, Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb Jr. and South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles. It called Kimberly Mitchell, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner, to account for refusing to accept a $30,000 donation from United States Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative to go toward a charity a friend of hers established that was delivering thousands of free meals for weeks to Glades families in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a story published May 7 in the Palm Beach Daily News (“Good deeds punished in sugar-enviro charity spat”), Ms. Mitchell and the entrepreneur running the nonprofit Hospitality Helping Hands (or H3), Rodney Mayo, say the commissioner’s and mayors’ letter was inaccurate and “insulting.”
The story quoted Ms. Mitchell as saying the letter’s charge that she’d put “personal anti-farmer feelings” ahead of the health and safety of Glades families was untrue, replying, “We love farmers.”
She heads the Everglades Trust, a lobbying group. But Mr. Mayo says he, not Ms. Mitchell, turned down the sugar donations, according to the Daily News story. She serves on H3’s board, too.
Mr. Mayo stated the money was raised through other means, the story said, and that H3 still would provide meals to Glades residents. He also said that the politicians’ letter was wrong about “the program linking restaurants to western Palm Beach County communities” being ended. He was not named in that letter, nor was his charity.
For his part, Mayor Wilson, interviewed May 12, stated he did not know the name of the charity involved or why Commissioner McKinlay did not mention it.
“We’ve been having so many people come, trying to help the Glades communities, and so I don’t want to misrepresent any particular organizations or call out one that I’m not really certain on,” he explained.
He said he was shocked at the criticism of sugar producers and that Ms. Mitchell’s remarks were misdirected.
“Not just Kimberly Mitchell but anybody, when somebody’s trying to help the community, especially during a time like this” would have met the same backlash from the Glades. “So again, I don’t know what her frame of thinking was … you know, was she frustrated about something else? But you don’t penalize the people or the agencies who are trying to help. That’s just ridiculous,” Mayor Wilson said May 12.
Local grower Keith Wedgworth chimed in on Facebook: “Shame on Kimberly Mitchell and the Everglades Trust. In a time of need, you cannot put your hatred toward the agricultural industry for the betterment of the people that need the food. At least I hope people will start seeing their true colors.”
Mayor Wilson had this to add: “Our sugar industry, our farmers, they are pillars of our community and people need to … clearly understand that. So an attack on them is an attack on our community. I think we got their attention from the letter; that’s why the three mayors endorsed the letter, to say, ‘Hey! Stop it! If you’ve got an ax to grind with somebody, just sit down and talk with them and let’s move on, when it comes to taking care of people who are in need!’
“You guys keep doing the good work that you’re doing at the Lake Okeechobee News,” he went on. “It’s important that we have people advocate not just against the bad but to highlight the good as well. You guys always put the things out there, good and bad and sometimes ugly. And that’s why we really support and appreciate the newspaper.”