When it comes to giving of themselves and providing to others less fortunate, the produce industry has few peers.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

While Florida grower-shippers remain busy during the winter harvesting and packing their crops, and business for the wholesale distributors heats up during the favorable winter temperatures as the snowbirds return to the state, springtime brings a rush of charitable events to benefit their workers and the communities they work in.

Bruce Fishbein, a partner with The Produce Connection Inc., Miami, enjoyed another successful year with the Don Strock Diabetes Classic, which he and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Don Strock created 26 years ago.

This year’s event, which attracted produce participants from companies such as C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.; Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif.; the Lipman Family Cos.’  Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, Fla.; and Miami distributor American Fruit & Produce Corp., Opa Locka, Fla., attracted 170 golfers, similar to last year, and generated $159,000 for diabetes research.

The tournament pushes the cumulative contributions to $2.5 million.

Heavy community involvement

After that event, Fishbein in late May was participating in committee meetings involving other community charities the produce distributor supports. One is a golf tournament benefiting the cystic fibrosis wing of the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.

Another is a tournament supporting the Miami-Dade County public schools, a big Produce Connection customer.

This year’s Don Strock event attracted participants from as far away as Puerto Rico. Some from Barbados had planned to attend but had to cancel their flights after learning their government quarantines travelers arriving from the U.S. and Mexico, Fishbein said.

Fishbein deals with many charitable events.

“If you look around, there aren’t that many industries that are like our industry that do the charity work our industry does,” he said. “They can say all they want about the big major sponsors of the PGA tour, but if you add all the things the people in the produce industry do, at the end of the year, as a group, I bet we give as much to charity.”

The Sunripe Golf Classic held in late April remains a big springtime benefit that supports Florida migrant worker children.
Decade of helping workers

In its 10th year, the benefit, sponsored by the tomato and vegetable growers that market their produce under the Sunripe label, generated $80,000 for migrant worker student teacher education at the Tampa-based University of South Florida College of Education.

Like the Miami diabetes and cystic fibrosis events, the Sunripe benefit attracts many in the produce industry from throughout the U.S.

“Because they work with the university to hit their goal, the people at Sunripe go the extra mile and care about the people working for them,” said Josh Gentry, group sales manager for Total Quality Logistics Inc., Milford, Ohio. “It’s not surprising that many who work for them go on to college.”

While participants receive some good feelings supporting such charitable causes, the benefit continues as the money the event generates is multiplied through the lives of many children in the farmworker communities.

Along with many other education students, Linda Gil, of Wimauma, Fla., would likely go into debt using her credit cards to pay for her tuition and textbooks.

The first in her Hispanic family to go to college, Gil, who is in her final internship with the migrant education program, said her English and Spanish speaking abilities help her reach many of her community’s students.

Making a difference 

“We can really make a difference and connect with students and parents because we understand,” Gil said.

“We used to pick the fields and traveled north to other growing regions. The students will tell you they weren’t able to do their homework with their parents’ help because their parents don’t get home from working in the fields and packinghouses until after 8 p.m. and these parents, who also work evenings and weekends, don’t have child care.

“Without this scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to go to school and help these students.”

All the funds generated by the event — which has over the years blossomed to $1.2 million  —  go to the endowment.

The owners of the Sunripe-branded companies Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, Fla.; Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee; Heller Bros. Packing Corp., Winter Garden, Fla.; and Pacific Triple E Produce Corp., Tracy, Calif.; pay for all the event’s costs.

Thanks to the growing endowment supported by the Sunripe Classic, the university, which has helped 40 students, is now financially able to support many more in their efforts to leave the fields and give back to their communities.