The line stretched out in a way that now looks familiar. People parked and stood, masked and giving each other room. Near the front of the building sat tables of fresh produce. As each person neared the front, they’d not be let in to handle the fruit and vegetables themselves; instead, their shopper would go off to bag up what they wanted. Welcome to the farmers’ market, 2020-style.
In recent weeks it’s been possible to find scenes like this in plenty of places; this particular one took place outside Danny’s BBQ and Holy Mackerel Small Batch Beers. The pair of businesses opened up not long after the new year, teaming up to work out of the same location, the former Old Florida Seafood House on NE 26th Street in Wilton Manors. They drew good crowds for a few weeks and then … well, you know what then.
Like so many businesses, they redrew their business plan on the fly. In addition to the takeout food and beer that’s become so common, they also opened up a weekly farmers’ market. They knew that the problems of restaurants and breweries like theirs were getting lots of attention, but they worried about the food suppliers who aren’t as public facing but who were also getting hit. And really, they just worried about people.
“We’re not really clearing a whole lot of profit, but we’re really just trying to help the community, people who are out of work and our own servers and bartenders,” says Micah Harris, one of the people behind the beer-and-barbecue joint. “There’s no rulebook for this.
“There’s something about a farmers’ market. You see a bunch of fruit and produce on a table, your mind starts going.” For people who might need help getting their minds going, he offers easy, healthy recipes that don’t require lots of ingredients. “It’s phenomenal. And it’s super simple. We’re not doing this for notoriety or pats on the back or likes on Facebook. We want people to have a purpose. This is super tough right now. [People] who live in one-bedrooms, they’re home alone, they’re jobless and foodless. It can break a person’s spirit. We don’t want anyone to feel broken.”
Tara Jungersen, associate professor and chair of Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Counseling, shares those concerns.
“There’s going to be so many mental health needs,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a quantity of mental health needs we’ve never had. But there’s also a quantity of people reaching out and checking on each other.” Family and friends, she says, “need to have these real conversations with their loved ones.”
People reaching out, she says, need to “be authentic themselves, to not be afraid to model having a real conversation: ‘You know what, I have my good days and my bad.’ We know to follow up, dig a little deeper: ‘Tell me about the bad days, what goes on during those days.’”
Eventually, the weekly Holy Mackerel/Danny’s BBQ market became a six-days-a-week market. They quietly gave away free food to out-of-work bar and restaurant workers and partnered with nonprofits and organizations such as Wilton Manors Elementary School to deliver food to families who needed it. It wasn’t a big thing. But it was the thing they could do.
It was one parking lot in front of one brewery and barbecue in one corner of the Fort Lauderdale area, but it’s a scene that feels universal now.
It’s the supply chains and business models that faltered or collapsed completely – and that were replaced by something new and that looks more like direct action. It’s the people who need help – financial help, help getting the next meal on the table, and also the help that comes from seeing another person.
And with it all, it’s the community.
“I think the sense of community is strong in Fort Lauderdale,” Mayor Dean Trantalis says. “I see people reaching out to other people, trying to make sure this works, trying to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks. That’s the only way we’re going to succeed – and we’re on a path to success with our vigilance and our consistency.”
The New Links in the Chain
One April Saturday, Fort Lauderdale resident Robin Haines Merrill saw a Facebook post about fields in the Homestead/Florida City area where produce had been dumped. Fresh vegetables were sitting in fields, free for the taking and soon to rot.
So Merrill drove down to south Miami-Dade and spent several hours loading up her SUV with squash and zucchini along with others doing the same.
“Cars were parked, and families were clearing these fields,” she says. “It was amazing seeing these families harvesting these fields of food that had just been left.”
She was also amazed by the sheer volume of food available. And she only went to one field; she passed many other similar ones in the area.
“I was there for two-and-a-half hours; there were always people out there and we didn’t even make a dent,” she says.
She put a message up on Facebook that the following day, she’d be parked just off Las Olas, giving away the vegetables to whoever wanted them. And that’s what she did, laying out her free wares and wearing a mask while keeping at least six feet from the people who stopped by. An artist and activist with a large Facebook following, Merrill saw a substantial turnout for the food. Soon, she was coming up with a plan to do more.
Merrill was seeing one example of what became a well-known phenomenon: farmers and other food producers who saw their restaurant, hotel or school-related food orders dry up overnight. For Merrill and Micah Harris, who also sees the Holy Mackerel/Danny’s BBQ farmers’ market and giveaways as a way to help the restaurant’s food suppliers, it was particularly galling that this was happening at a time when there was such a great need for food. The problem, as noted by organizations such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, is exacerbated by large supply chains that cannot quickly turn from one kind of business to another.
Some restaurants and other food businesses adjusted their business models on the fly to keep themselves and their suppliers busy. Dania Beach’s Tropical Acres Steakhouse, a family-owned institution that’s been open since 1949, turned itself into a butcher shop – a butcher shop that also sells favorites like the restaurant’s French onion soup alongside prime cuts of meat. The National Cattlemen Beef Association recently estimated that the American cattle industry has lost more than $13 billion because of COVID-19.
“I had 88 cases of beef on Friday, five days ago,” Tropical Acres owner Jack Studiale said one recent week. “Today I’m at 53. We had a weekend that you can’t imagine, and this weekend it’s going to be even more.” In addition to steaks, they’re selling everything from seafood to lamb to crab cakes, which get made in batches of 92 and go out the door at a rate of about seven batches a week.
“I can’t imagine selling that in the dining room,” Studiale says.
Studiale says he’s been able to keep all of the employees working who wanted to keep working. (Some who have health concerns or who are eligible for social security decided not to, he says.) Converting to a butcher shop means keeping more than 35 people in work at almost the same amount of hours they had before. (Not all work in the kitchen; they’re also doing landscaping and facilities jobs.) It’s been so successful that Studiale decided it will become permanent.
“We definitely are continuing a butcher shop here,” he says. “I’ve already ordered two display cases for the lobby. We’ll continue this after the opening.”
Nearby in Hollywood, Triar Seafood Company – until March, a wholesale supplier to top restaurants and hotels around South Florida and the country – is temporarily rebranding as “Pete the Fishmonger,” owner Peter Jarvis says with a laugh.
“It wasn’t my idea to do this, but I’ve got people in my corner who want to see me succeed,” he says. “I’m 30 years in business – high-end, high-quality local seafood shipped around the country and here in South Florida as well. Ninety-nine point nine percent of my business as I knew it for 30 years is gone.”
Fishermen, he notes, are unlike farmers or ranchers who have crops ripening or livestock grazing in their fields no matter what the economic conditions are. Fishermen don’t have to go out and catch the fish – but for the fishermen Jarvis buys from in places like the Keys, there aren’t exactly lots of other options. If he can keep work coming in for even just a few, he will. So his business pitch is simple.
“Come get the same quality fish; we’ll sell it to you at wholesale prices,” he says. “But how about this – not only are you helping my staff get a paycheck every week, you’re helping the local fishermen do work every day. It’s not a lot, but the guys are still fishing. We need to keep the guys on the water.”
For Robin Haines Merrill, doing something, no matter how small, also became the goal. After that initial food drop, Merrill decided to pay for food while circumventing the supply chain altogether. She started a small fundraiser and used the money to buy food directly from Mecca Family Farms, a Palm Beach County producer that like many others, had started selling previously restaurant-bound food directly to consumers. Several times a week through the spring, Merrill drove up to the farm, loaded her SUV and brought it back to Fort Lauderdale, where she set up shop just off Las Olas and gave food away to whoever had heard about it and needed some.
Merrill’s giveaway and the Holy Mackerel/Danny’s BBQ farmers’ market were two of many across South Florida as people and organizations circumvented supply chains to get food where it was needed; events shared on social media ranged from small individual- or church-organized giveaways to massive ones such as the food drops the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors and Oakland Park organized with Feeding South Florida at Mills Pond Park.
For Mayor Trantalis and the city, help from the private and nonprofit sectors has been critical in the face of a federal response that’s ranged from confused to nonexistent. Private help has come from organizations such as the Florida Panthers hockey team stepping in to help open a coronavirus testing site in Holiday Park or the weekly FSF food drops, which saw long lines of cars snaking around the park.
“Private philanthropy is always a savior,” he says. “And while we will get assistance from the state … this is what always saves a community.”
Meanwhile, FSF has largely been saved by South Florida’s robust farming sector.
“A lot of folks don’t realize that we have a strong agricultural community in the area, from Palm Beach down to Miami,” says Paco Velez, the FSF president and CEO. “We’re fortunate that these guys are here for now and we can access a lot of the fresh fruit and vegetables that come out of South Florida growers.”
FSF was one big organization that didn’t have a problem navigating supply chains, as it already had a relationship with many South Florida growers; before this, Velez says, the organization was already South Florida’s largest produce distributor.
“This year, it’s a bit different,” he says. “We’ve been able to rescue a lot more. When they started to decrease in volume or sales, we got those donations.”
However, South Florida produces crops mostly in winter and early spring. That abundance of crops has been a help to organizations like FSF during the past several months but now, they’re losing that source. They’ve been preparing for that by buying more canned goods, but that’s getting harder. Merrill found another produce supplier and is therefore able to keep her giveaways going, but it’s a different story for larger organizations.
“We’ve been lucky to bring in some items,” Velez says. “We started early but as more people compete for the same product … a lot of different people looking to purchase canned goods from a lot of different manufacturers, the food supply gets pretty limited.”
By mid-April, FSF’s weekly expenditures had risen from about $125,000 to nearly $500,000. Velez is talking to everybody, looking for more funding everywhere, because he knows who’s depending on it.
“We are seeing a lot of families who are coming through our lines who are desperate, who are scared,” he says. “They don’t know when this is going to end, they don’t know if they’re going to get a job back, they don’t know when they’re going to get food on the table.”
The Strain & the Silence
Shortly after the lockdown began, the Nova Southeastern University College of Psychology began doing a series of online talks about mental well-being during a pandemic.
Tara Jungersen, who chairs the NSU School of Counseling and is trained in disaster mental health, delivered one of the talks. When she talks about what’s happening now, she talks about grief. Grief is about loss. There are different forms of grief: expected losses and unexpected losses. “And people cope with those different types of losses in different ways,” she says.
Then there’s the physical reality of what people are being asked to do. Jungersen co-authored a study about reactions to shelter-in-place after the Boston Marathon bombing. Then, people in Boston were asked to stay where they were for just a couple days as police hunted the bomber. But the effects were still noticeable – and different depending on how people sheltered.
“You had those who sheltered in place with their family, those who sheltered alone and those who sheltered with a friend. Those who sheltered with a friend did the best. Those who sheltered alone did the worst.”
According to Jungersen, there are still things people can do if they live alone. “It really is about the routine and about how you’re going to set up that space,” she says. “It’s important to get up at a regular time, set the alarm. Open up the blinds. Close them when it’s time to go towards dinner time. Have something in these little rituals that help you separate the day.”
And move. Not necessarily “exercise.” But movement, yoga, stretching, regeneration. Drink a lot of water and hydrate.
Of course, some people have specific needs. Mutual help societies have rallied to provide online support to those who deal with addiction.
“That’s not the same as in person, but people need to continue to go to their meetings,” Jungersen says.
People who are solidly into recovery may need to go to a previous phase, perhaps reconnect with their sponsor, she says. It’s important to acknowledge that this is a high-potential relapse time.
Jungersen has also worked with domestic violence and knows what a dangerous time this can be. If a couple is forced together and the person in danger can’t leave – because, Jungersen notes, there are absolutely situations where she can’t leave – it’s important to identify the tension-building phase. When they see it coming, Jungersen says, they should try to get a break, get a time out, do what’s possible to help the situation deescalate.
She also notes that even good couples can struggle. “The more time that couples are spending together, they’ll have time to identify some patterns because they’re spending so much more time together,” she says.
She suggests identifying themes. What are we arguing about? Is the same thing coming up? Timing of conflict?
Jungersen is also keeping an eye on herself and how she’s doing. She limits her exposure to media, taking it in little chunks rather than having it on all the time. She has reconnected (virtually) with friends. She’s making sure to keep the difference between daytime and nighttime hours. And she’s realistic.
“I just use some self-acceptance,” she says, “that there’s going to be some good days and bad days.”
For many of the recently unemployed, the bad days have often come courtesy of the State of Florida. In April, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed that Florida was dead last in the nation in processing new unemployment claims. That wasn’t news to anybody who frequented the state’s frequently crashing unemployment website.
“I got it at a pretty good time so the website only crashed a couple times,” musician and music teacher Scott Crain says. He submitted a claim but got no confirmation; he had no way of knowing whether or not his claim went through. “There’s a lot of ambiguity if that’s going to happen or not.”
Crain’s a professional musician who supplements that income by teaching music at the School of Rock chain of music schools. But when the venues closed down and many of his students’ parents pulled out of the temporarily online school, he needed help. So he did what musicians and artists do: he improvised.
Now, like many other musicians across South Florida and the world, he plays regular online gigs, a link to his online “tip jar” money-sending app account displayed prominently. He works with local Apparatus Studios so that the shows can have a professional sound rather than a musician-broadcasting-on-his-phone-from-his-home sound.
“People are getting really creative,” Crain says. “They’re in survival mode.”
Cristina Arroyo describes herself as a “creative problem solver.” The Fort Lauderdale-based scenic artist designs and builds sets for theater companies all around South Florida. In mid-March, three shows she’d worked on were set to open. None of them did.
To the three theater companies’ great credit, all of them paid her. “They all came through, which was a huge relief,” she says. “Those places are great.”
Performing arts companies are also hustling new ways of doing business. May was supposed to be a big month for New City Players. On May 15, the company planned to debut Water by the Spoonful, its first work in its new home, the new black box theater at Fort Lauderdale arts center ArtServe.
Instead, the company’s experimenting with new ways of building community online.
“We have a couple advantages that we have been able to leverage right now, one of them being that we are a small organization, so it’s easier to be flexible and agile,” says Tim Davis, New City Players’ producing artistic director. Another advantage is that last year they did some serious fundraising that got them out of the “constant cash-flow nightmare that is nonprofit theater.”
And they’ve always taken online and social media seriously – which meant that when they suddenly needed to take everything online, they had the ability to do so.
That said, it’s been a crash course. They launched Late Show Live, a show that runs on Instagram Live every weeknight at 9 and features a different NCP member interviewing someone from the South Florida theater world. They run a storytelling event, CitySpeaks, and an artist-centric event, NCP Lab, that went online. In the latter, writers and actors workshop in-the-works plays. “That’s actually tripled in size since it’s moved online,” Davis says. “People seem hungry to stay creative.”
That said, people are also just regular old hungry. Late Show Live raises money for the South Florida Theatre League Relief Fund. Arroyo says that she’s now getting into what’s traditionally the dead time for scenic artists and other behind-the-scenes theater workers – but it’s also a time when she usually supplements that income via other jobs like painting houses. Crain enjoys the online gigs, but he says the money from the virtual tip jar doesn’t make up for the base pay a venue gives for a live gig.
Times are hard. For many people, big institutions have failed. But community exists. “The most humbling thing I’m seeing is the community effort to keep small businesses alive,” Peter Jarvis says. “These small businesses are making a difference to those who know about them.”
For Micah Harris, it’s about more than food. It’s about that community.
“If you go through all this alone, you can get dark,” he says. “I don’t want anyone feeling like they’re alone.”
In light of the pandemic, jewelry brand Gabriel & Co. has made a bracelet “as a sign of faith, strength and positivity.” The number 91 on the bracelet symbolizes Psalm 91 in the Bible: “No harm shall overcome you.”
Jewelers for Children (JFC), a nonprofit charitable foundation helping children across the world, will receive 100 percent of the proceeds for each bracelet sold. To learn more about their mission and programs, please visit jewelersforchildren.org.
91>19 Bracelet by Gabriel & Co. $91, available at gabrielny.com.