Farmers' market fiasco: Miami-Dade Health Department squanders $15 million

Remember President Obama's stimulus package? The $787 billion bill was supposed to goose this country's ailing economy like a line of premium yeyo. Here in Miami, it was also booked to save us from our slovenly, speed-eating selves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the Miami-Dade County Health Department nearly $15 million for healthy-living programs. Neighborhoods such as Overtown and Liberty City — where McDonald's locations easily outnumber produce vendors — desperately needed the help.

But three years later, those lofty plans have fallen prey to red tape. All the money must be spent by next month, yet half a dozen organizations have only begun to receive funds.

"It's been a huge pain in the ass," says Ian Wogan, whose company, Garden of Ian, was awarded a grant to improve two community gardens in Little Haiti but struggled for months to get the cash.

What happened? Well, it took a full year for Miami-Dade DOH to even receive the $14.7 million. Then DOH began soliciting bids. It didn't start doling out cash until June 2010, giving $12 million to 20 groups.

But those that received money included many programs that had little to do with putting vegetables in the hood. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for instance, took $3 million for "healthier" vending machines and education sessions; the Miami Police Department bizarrely snagged $300,000 to train crossing guards; and more than $3 million went to ad firms to promote the CDC's plans.

Farm initiatives such as Wogan's group — ones that would actually put farmers' produce on the table — got the leftovers: $500,566 to boost markets and gardens in Miami's inner-city "food deserts."

Even worse, that money came too late. Some groups say they began receiving money only a few weeks ago. Unless the DOH gets an extension, any unspent funds will be sent back to the CDC March 18.

"The whole idea was to use this money to enhance these gardens," Wogan laments, "but the season is pretty much gone now."

 
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