OKEECHOBEE — The March 27 distribution of food by the Treasure Coast Food Bank drew so many people it created traffic problems and potential health concerns, according to discussion at the April 2 meeting of the Okeechobee County commissioners.
They agreed they want food bank visits to continue, but said future distributions should be only to those with vouchers.
“I know the importance of getting the food to our citizens,” said Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee County Health Department. “The circumstances we are in, they want to come back.”
She said the health department does not want to see a repeat of the March 27 distribution, which attracted hundreds of cars, with many people arriving hours in advance.
“The 500 plus vehicles is not in the best interest of our community,” she said. “We need to look at alternative ways to get that food to our residents who are in need.
“We had vehicles from all over the coast coming to Okeechobee where we had no cases and they had many cases (COVID-19),” she said. She said people were supposed to stay in their vehicles, but some congregated beside the vehicles while waiting in line.
“It’s putting a lot of our own residents at risk,” she said.
Sheriff Noel Stephen said there were more than 500 cars in line before the distribution time that was advertised. In the past, he said, the food distribution was on a Saturday and only to those who had vouchers from local service agencies. He said those distributions required no additional work for the deputies. On March 27, he said, there was a traffic backup for half a mile before they closed the gates to the Agri-Civic Center on State Road 710. He said he had to pull deputies off the road to handle the situation at the Agri-Civic Center.
“We had an absolute mess,” he said.
“If we go back and require vouchers, they should take care of about 75 percent of it,” said Commissioner David Hazellief.
Commissioner Kelly Owens said if they are required to stay in their vehicles and pop the trunk so the food can be placed in the trunk, it should maintain the social distancing recommended due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The sheriff said normally the food distribution follows a regulated system. Drivers only have to get out of their vehicles to open the trunk. Many can “pop” the trunk without getting out. He said they drive down a line and volunteers put food into the trunk.
“I would hate to stop the distribution of food,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. “I don’t think we can stop feeding people. Some people depend on that.”
“During crisis times, if people don’t have a voucher we don’t know if they are coming here to get the food to go out and sell it at a profit,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “There has to be a safeguard to make sure this food is being collected for people who are in need of it,”
Ms. Collins said in the past, the food bank required a voucher system.
“Our Village has taken on the voucher system,” she said, adding that organization works with community services and churches to identify the families in need.
“We had a lot of people coming from other counties,” said Chairman Burroughs. “If we have a voucher system, they must be from Okeechobee County. “We certainly don’t want people from the coast coming over here and getting this food. They have their own food bank distributions on the coast.”
He said with a voucher system, anyone who does not have a voucher could be sent back by the deputies.
He said the expense of additional deputies needed to help at future mobile food pantries could fall under reimbursement for the COVID-19 emergency.
Commissioner Hazellief suggested they have signs to let everyone know that if you are not an Okeechobee County resident with a voucher you will not be served by the food bank that day.
In other business, the commissioners voted to extend the local state of emergency for one week.
Chairman Burroughs also noted small business loans are available to maintain employees during crisis; if employees are not laid off, the loans can be forgiven. He said information is being sent out through the Chamber of Commerce of
Okeechobee County and will be also posted on the Okeechobee County government website.
“It can certainly help you get through these troubled times,” he added.
The commissioners will meet again on Monday, April 6, at 4 p.m. This will be a virtual meeting. The pubic can watch online at co.okeechobee.fl.us/.