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Podcast: Consumer Safety & COVID-19 with Commissioner Nikki Fried, State of Florida

Posted on January 22, 2021


Commissioner Nikki Fried - GovLove

nikki-fried

Nikki Fried
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services
State of Florida
Bio | Twitter | Facebook


Adapting the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department. Nikki Fried, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services for the State of Florida, joined the podcast to talk about her journey to becoming Commissioner and what her Department does. She discussed how COVID-19 has impacted the work of the Department and how they have adapted, highlighting the Be SMART Florida campaign. She also shared advice to other women considering running for office or applying for executive-level positions in government.

Host: Alyssa Dinberg

 

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Episode Transcription

 

Message  00:00

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Alyssa Dinberg  01:04

Coming to you from Denver, Colorado This is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders Network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Alyssa Dinberg, Recovery Coordinator for Clear Creek County, and today I’m joined by Florida’s twelfth Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Nikki Fried. Commissioner Fried is a lifelong Floridian, attorney, and passionate activist. Welcome to Gov Love.

Nikki Fried  01:32

Thanks for having me. It’s nice to hear you all the way out in Colorado.

Alyssa Dinberg  01:37

Yeah, how’s Florida?

Nikki Fried  01:39

Not as cold as you guys are out there, but.

Alyssa Dinberg  01:43

yeah, it’s not bad today, but it definitely gets a lot colder here. That’s for sure. 

Nikki Fried  01:48

Yes, I’ve had some opportunities to come out to Colorado couple times and hard to come home sometimes.

Alyssa Dinberg  01:55

I understand that. Well, we’re really excited to have you on the episode. Today, we’re going to talk about the role of commission, of a Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the role a position like that has during a pandemic. We’ll also learn about Be smart Florida, a statewide COVID-19 consumer awareness campaign, asking Floridians to take a small actions with proven results to slow the pandemic spread. So if you’re ready to get started, we will start with one of our signature lightning rounds. Are you ready?

Nikki Fried  02:28

I am ready.

Alyssa Dinberg  02:30

Okay, so I love this question. What is your favorite breakfast food?

Nikki Fried  02:36

So actually, I do protein shakes in the morning. I try to work out first thing in the morning and do protein shakes. But if I had outside of a typical day of protein, I love a good like cream cheese bagel with some lox on it, white fin. So but but I typically stick to my protein shakes in the morning. But that would be my go to if I had another thought.

Alyssa Dinberg  03:03

You are speaking my language. Seriously, a good bagel with whitefish and lox, literally cannot beat it. It’s delicious. Okay, so if you could change careers to anything, what would you do?

Nikki Fried  03:22

If I can change careers, I mean, I have always loved my mom was a teacher. And I feel like we have such an opportunity to teach the youth and so if I had to go back didn’t get involved in public service. I would be a teacher

Alyssa Dinberg  03:40

that’s a great answer. Teachers are so important. I personally don’t have the patience to be a teacher but I am very appreciative of everyone that, all my teachers in the past that put up with me

Nikki Fried  03:53

and me too.

Alyssa Dinberg  03:55

very appreciated. They needed a lot of patience. Yeah. Okay, this is one of my very favorite questions. Uh, what is your most controversial non political opinion?

Nikki Fried  04:12

Non political opinion. I don’t know if it’s controversial or not, but again, I go back to my protein shakes first thing in the morning. You know there’s definitely the the thought process I should have like a well balanced breakfast. I think my protein shakes are well balanced. But I can see the other side of  like having an actual meal like two eggs with a grain of you know, piece of bread you know, and fruit. But I have been doing my protein shakes for for the last probably 15 years and so but I stick to it, but I certainly don’t take my beliefs and push it onto anything else. But but certainly have had those interesting debates with people about who wants to sit down and have a great breakfast and started off with coffee and And I’m just I’m on the go all the time. I don’t drink coffee. I have no caffeine. I do the workouts and the shakes. But I understand that that’s not everybody’s lifestyle, and not everybody will want to choose to do something like that.

Alyssa Dinberg  05:12

No, I think that’s actually great. It’s more than I eat. I am not a big breakfast eater. So I am envious of people that are able to either eat breakfast or drink a protein shake every morning. It’s just I’ve just never been a breakfast eater. So I think that’s great.

Nikki Fried  05:30

And that in of itself is controversial whether to have this or to not have breakfast in the morning.

Alyssa Dinberg  05:35

Yeah, yeah, I typically don’t eat until about 11, which I know doctors are if there’s any doctors listening, they’re probably rolling their eyes right now, but it is what is is. All right. Well, our last question of the lightning round is something that I asked in every episode, if you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?

Nikki Fried  05:56

Well, I’m gonna preface this as Commissioner of Agriculture that I love all the vegetables that are grown in the state of Florida. I’ll start there. But I’ve, if I can be a vegetable. You know, I’ve always found that eggplants to be like, it’s like a go to staple. One. It’s just it’s looks different than most vegetables. You’ve got this, like, you know, shiny exterior. But this beautiful interior that can be used for not just you know, I was vegetarian for probably about 15 years of my life. And so I’d spent a lot of time learning how to cook, eggplant and tofu. But there is so versatile and can be in so many different meals and can be eaten by itself as a substitute of kind of a meat product if you happen to be vegan or vegetarian. But there’s just something about the eggplant. It’s just, you know, you get it in your refrigerator you come up with all these different ideas of what to do with it and how to prepare it. I just think it’s versatile. It’s hard outside, yet, you know, beautiful and delicious inside.

Alyssa Dinberg  06:57

I love eggplant. I think that’s a really good answer. It is very versatile. You can cook it many ways. It’s always delicious, I think that’s a good answer. I appreciate that. All right. So let’s get started. I have so many questions. I’ve never spoken to anybody that oversees agriculture. And I just think what you do is so interesting. So I’m excited to get started. First, I was hoping you could give us a little bit of your background and how you got to where you are today specifically as the Florida agriculture commissioner.

Nikki Fried  07:34

So my path here is very unconventional. Born and raised in Miami, Florida. I then went to the University of Florida, went there for my undergraduate, my master’s and my law degree. And I actually practiced law for about 15 years, everything from commercial litigation, and then to the public defender’s office, and eventually down to South Florida, where I was first defending homeowners during the homeowner, during the foreclosure crisis. And then I basically woke up one day and I said, You know, I have been, I have somebody who also has a past in politics a little bit. I was student body president at the University of Florida, was vice president of my middle school, involved in my youth group. And about eight years into practicing law, I kind of woke up one day, and I really don’t like any of this. What else is out there? And so I went and I scrubbed my resume and had an opportunity to speak to a lot of people that were in public office, and was fortunate enough to be hired by a law firm down in South Florida that did government consulting, and spent the next five years making partner traveling back and forth from South Florida to Tallahassee, and lobbying on behalf of numerous clients. But my main focuses were on public education, represented one of our school boards from South Florida, a nonprofit organization that represented foster care children. And then something that you know very well in Colorado, the expansion of medical marijuana. And I was one of basically one of the first team members of one of our license holders here in our state and spent a significant amount of time really talking both on the state level and national level about the expansion and access to, and affordable access to medical marijuana. And as this conversation kept going on the national level, and who was running for what positions in the state of Florida in 2018. You know, we had just seen, for anybody who follows the marijuana movement, that attorney general at the time Jeff Sessions, had rescinded a really important memo that protected marijuana businesses and patients and doctors across the country. And he rescinded that. And so there was a concern that there was going to be more Department of Justice involvement in a lot of the local operators in our state. And as we’re sitting at these conferences, and having these conversations, everybody kind of turned around and said, Why do we keep getting our butts kicked in DC when all of these states across our country have either legalized or have some type of medical programs? And well, because we don’t have anybody who’s actually in office, whether it is you know, high level statewide or in DC that actually comes from the industry. And again, I’ve been representing a license holder for over three years at that point and was on all the national circuits and in conversations about where state of Florida is, where it needs to go, the problems of their program, what’s happening on a national level. And so as I’m sitting and having these conversations with, with people, I kind of turn to now my fiance, at the time, my boyfriend said, I think I’m gonna run for office, and he kind of just, I had this look in my eye that he looked at, and he was like, Oh, crap, here we go. And really came to the decision to run for Commissioner of Agriculture for a few reasons, one, and statewide for it one, we were in 2018, it was supposed to be a blue wave of pink way, we saw historic amounts of women who are running for office and being elected into office and saw the position that which is a member of our Florida cabinet here. So we’ve got four members of our cabinet, all of which are independently elected, which is the governor, the Chief Financial Officer, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Agriculture. And the four of us make up the Florida cabinet. We also make up we have a board of trustees for all of our land here in the state as well as we consist of the the clemency board as well. And so when I saw this position, and of course, I mean, you know, knowledgeable about it previously, but not knowing the full breadth of this job. Not only is it the agricultural component, and again, coming from the cannabis space, saw the cannabis plant is really the future of agriculture for the state of Florida. But also its Agriculture and Consumer Services. So that I get to take my 15 years of practicing law and being an advocate, and being able to now take it to a larger role. And now being able to represent all of the citizens of our state against crime and fraud, and really be able to protect the consumers. And then on the clemency side member of the cabinet, again, with my past public defenders role, and job that gave me an opportunity to again, bring some voices to the clemency as a past PD who understands the criminal justice system and can really try to help a lot of people who needs to be brought back into society. So it’s been a very interesting journey to get here as now the only statewide elected Democrat in the state of Florida, first female to have every position in the state. And so it’s been it’s been an interesting journey, to say the least. But it’s been an incredible one.

Alyssa Dinberg  12:31

Yeah, that’s pretty incredible. I didn’t realize you were the only elected Democrat in the state. That’s pretty crazy.

Nikki Fried  12:38

Well, statewide. I mean, we obviously have members of our Congress. Yeah, yeah, we have members of Congress, and we’ve got, you know, our house and our Senate. But as far as statewide, we’ve got the four cabinet and then the two US senators. And so it’s just me.

Alyssa Dinberg  12:52

That’s amazing. Yeah, I actually read that you were the first woman in Florida elected to your position. And you’re one of the few women to ever hold a statewide office in Florida. So I was wondering what advice you could give to women who serve in government who might be thinking of running for local government, or local government office? Or maybe on the staff side, and one of the few women in leadership?

Nikki Fried  13:17

Yeah, you know, I think the biggest thing is, just do it. You know, that that women have a, you know, we have, we’re uniquely positioned where we are still a lot of the caregivers, to our families and to our children. And so it’s a balancing act, you know, balancing work life. And knowing and having a support system around you to make sure that when you are having to run campaigns, or actually be in executive office or legislative office, that you’ve got a good enough support system around you to help pick up because we, while we all want to be considered Superwoman, there is only 24 hours in a day, and they’re seven days a week. And so knowing how to ask for help is also something we as women don’t do as often, we feel that we can do it all and that we have the capability and we know how to how to do balancing acts, and we know how to micromanage and we know how to, you know, just juggle a lot of things at the same time. And sometimes we just need to ask for help. But you know, running for office, and it’s not even running for office, it’s serving, is such a rewarding experience, knowing that you have the opportunity to really make people’s lives better. And to give people who may not have had a voice, a seat at the table. It is so I mean, I wake up every day with a smile on my face, and no matter how hard the day is going to be or no matter what comes next. And so you’ve got to just put yourself out there and sometimes you may not win the first time. That’s okay. You know, keep running, keep trying keep getting out there. But women also have to balance two interesting components of serving, that we have to be both likeable and qualified, meaning that, you know, people have to actually like us. And we have to have a smile on our faces even when we want to scream and and kill people around us. But we have to always, you know, keep our composure and look professional and, but we also have to be qualified. Whereas men get away with a lot more, you know, men get away with being able to to be jerks, and not have the best qualifications. But if they look strong, then they are more electable than women. And so women have to understand that balancing act. And it’s, it’s not right. And the more and more of us that that run, and win, we can start changing that conversation and showing different types of leadership, you know, my leadership styles are going to be vastly different than other women in office, but be able to build on each other’s strengths, and try to continue to knock down a lot of those glass ceilings, and those stereotypes that have unfortunately been put on us. Because, you know, politics, you know, as the first female, we’re still hearing a lot of firsts. We’re getting the first vice female Vice President of the United States, you know, we’re still seeing a lot of firsts on women. So we need more and more women just to run, put it out there. And let’s go. Yeah,

Alyssa Dinberg  16:12

We could do a whole episode on that. But I just, I couldn’t do this interview without  asking that question. So I really appreciate it. So let’s shift our attention a little bit to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. What is that department and what is your role?

Nikki Fried  16:31

So our department, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, otherwise known as FDACS does so much here in the State of Florida. Our responsibilities are so vast and varied. We present an opportunity to help people feed our families, to protect and conserve our environment, strengthen our economy, and to build a Florida that is really equipped to face the future. We support agriculture of course, as the as the title explains, we protect and we promote and help to advance the industry in our state. We have over 47,000 farms and are Florida’s second largest economic driver, which is about $137 billion and supports over 2 million jobs here in the state. We also as I said are you know dealing with our consumer side, we are states our state’s consumer protection agency, so we’re responsible for handling consumer complaints, protecting against unfair and unsafe business practices. We also handle over 400,000 consumer complaints inquiries every single year. We also oversee more than 500,000 regulated devices entities, like gas station, palms, grocery stores. We also perform over 61,000 lab analysis on products like gasoline, brake fluid, perform over 9000 fair ride inspections, we oversee all the the fairs, the fair rides as well, including all of our theme parks. And we also returned last year 2.8 million to consumers through our mediation with businesses. We also regulate a wide variety of business including motor vehicle repair shops, pawnbrokers, health studios, travel sellers, interstate movers professional surveys and mappers, sweepstake, game promotions, and telemarketers. So big, big, big responsibility. We also have our Florida Forest Services, which manages more than 1 million acres of state forest and provide forest management assistance to roughly about 17 million acres of private and community forest. Our wildland firefighters are literally some of the best in the world. We were responsible for protecting our a lot of the homes when a fire started on our forest land, natural resources that can be devastated on wildfire for over 26 million acres. And so in totality, our division, our department oversees 19 different divisions, and they really impact and totality people’s lives every single day, you know, with the regulation of our grocery stores and markets, convenience stores. These are places where people you know, go to every single day. And we also which is a I take this part of my job extremely serious. we oversee and administer Florida’s $1.3 billion school lunch program. And so we serve about 245 million free or reduced meals and lunches to over 2 million children every single year. And during this pandemic, unfortunately, when the schools closed, we had to move into hyper speed to get some of our summer break spot programs up and running, to make sure that no child was going to go hungry when the schools actually closed. So we do a lot here in the state of Florida and we touch people’s lives every single day and as Commissioner. It falls all underneath me. I have a chief of staff. I’ve got two deputy chiefs of staff, I’ve got two deputy commissioners, 19 Division heads, and we are a very big team. And I cannot do it alone by any stretch of the imagination. And but but that’s why I oversee all that make all the final decisions on any rule making on policies and direction of the department.

Alyssa Dinberg  20:12

Wow, that you weren’t kidding that it’s a lot. Yeah. So from a structural standpoint, are you essentially the Executive Director of the Department? Is that kind of how it is structured?

Nikki Fried  20:26

No, I mean, I’m Commissioner so and so I kind of tend tp develop a, you know, workflow chart underneath me. And so yeah, so I’m Commissioner, and then underneath me is just like, Governor, you know, that the governor has, you know, whether it’s, you know, 30 agencies underneath him with Department of health, and you know, different moving parts, Economic Opportunity, all the different divisions underneath the Governor it’s the same thing. Another member of the cabinet and oversee all of these different functions inside the department.

Alyssa Dinberg  20:57

Got it. Okay, that makes sense. Wow. Yeah, that is, that is a lot. Um, so you just mentioned that you oversee, it’s about $137 billion agricultural and food supply chain budget, how and I’m curious how you interact with local governments and farming communities throughout the, throughout Florida, because I would imagine there has to be a good bit of interaction required.

Nikki Fried  21:24

Absolutely. You know, we work a lot with our county and municipal governments, our obviously our local school districts that goes to the feeding of our kids. We also have on the county level, our University of Florida, and was called IFAS, which is basically an arm of the University of Florida, which is all ag related. So they have extension offices all across the state. And IFAS stands for Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. And so we work with a lot of our different stakeholders, like our Florida Farm Bureau, as well, which has county level offices throughout the entire state. And we work with a lot of these different partners on vastly different issues, from purchasing a Florida grown agricultural commodities, again, to overseeing our school lunch program. During the pandemic, we worked a lot with our local governments, and our farm workers, making sure that there was assistance during COVID. Through the pandemic, we also work on specific level issues that may need our county levels that may need some additional help. And we also are very big on different conservation ag innovation initiatives. And so we have to have all of our local partners with those, especially, we also forgot the other big part part of my job, we have the Office of Energy underneath. So as we give out grants and talk about energy efficiency, and really pushing a lot of our local governments be using better lighting and solar, you know, we work with them on whether it’s grants or implementation of programs, or even highlighting that, you know, we did here in Leon County, which is where Tallahassee is, they are almost all on renewables, runs the entire government on renewables. So we had like a press conference with the mayor here to promote what they’re doing so others can can have examples. So we do that all the time. We work with our local officials, as we move things forward. And and really try to make a cohesiveness getting with our farmers and our consumers. 

Alyssa Dinberg  23:22

Interesting. So the pandemic has has impacted every state, every ounce of government. But I can imagine that it really really impacted your department, especially with an economic downturn that’s impacted Florida’s farming communities. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the impact of COVID and what the future holds for Florida?

Nikki Fried  23:47

Absolutely. And you’re right. It had a huge impact on our state, and it’s particularly in agriculture. And while agriculture right now is the number one economic driver because tourism is typically number one. With tourism at a standstill, agriculture actually has become number one. And for generations, our Florida farmers have successfully faced challenges like hurricanes and droughts and wildfires. And although growers are innovators, they had never faced a challenge quite like COVID. Our supply chains were completely upended with growers unable to access some of the markets that they’re used to for their commodities. A lot of these commodities are perishable, which led a lot of our growers to really be forced to plow out, plow under a lot of their crops, spill out, we saw just heartbreaking stories about milk being spilled out. Just the crop, the demand from the large purchasers just wasn’t there. And so our farmers across the state really suffered major crop losses which led to financial losses of close to over half a billion dollars just through April alone. But in these in these times, our farmers remained resilient, and our department was there every step along the way. We created a new resources, we created a commodities exchange to help connect consumers directly to producers and really start moving a lot of our Florida grown products directly to the consumer. I’m calling this a consumer conscious awakening to that so many of our, you know, citizens and then not just Florida but across the entire country really want to do more to buy local, where’s my food being grown, I don’t want the things coming in from other countries. And really understanding that the support of our local farmers is necessary necessary to really help our local economy. We also worked with a lot of our big box stores, you know, Sprouts and we have here in the state of Florida, our biggest food chain is called Publix, the Walmarts, the Whole Foods, to really encourage them to buy more Florida grown produce. We also launched a what’s called, Keep Florida Growing, a one stop online portal, which had all of the related COVID information both for our Florida farmers or ranchers, consumers. And of course for the news media. We have been working really closely with the US Department of Agriculture as well, to make sure that the needs of our of our farmers were it was still top priority. And throughout COVID we really work to ensure that agricultural workers were supported, they are essential. They feed our families, they feed our country. So I submitted to our governor during the reopening Task Force recommendations of how to deal with farm workers from PPE to access to health care, we’ve issued guidance for farm workers and provided essential worker letters for a lot of farmworkers during the pandemic. Ahead of the fall harvest, which is happening now. We launched a nine part video series to really provide guidance on the COVID-19 safety precautions for our farm workers. We were also keeping our farm operators and farm workers safe from COVID. And in general, because the reality is is that we feed here from the state of Florida, 150 million Americans rely on the food that we produce here in our state. And so we have been really working around the clock to work with our counties, again, to increase access to COVID-19 testing and a lot of our rural areas and where a lot of our farm workers live. We’ve done a lot you know efforts to improve the important and understand the important aspects of public health and food safety and food security. This was a an all hands on deck to really make sure that that agriculture industry continued to move forward and got through this.

Message  27:25

We’ll get you right back to today’s episode. First, we wanted to bring you a word from our sponsor Granicus. Short term rentals are often found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate across all communities in North America. And for local governments, that means it’s time to act. Short term rentals can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments or a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right compliance enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities that partner with Granicus on their short term rental compliance programs for everything from address and host identification, to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. If you’re interested in learning more about the short term rental market in your community, and how Granicus can help, visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Now back to the show.

Alyssa Dinberg  28:19

So you’ve talked a lot about food. And Florida obviously is a huge supplier of food for the nation. But I want to talk more about food for the kids in your community. It’s It’s no secret that when schools closed one of the biggest fears from the school districts was how children in need were going to get meals. And so I know that you oversaw Florida School Lunch Program, which provides meals to over 200, excuse me, 2 million Florida students. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how how your department shifted in providing food for the children and more broadly how local governments and school districts are dealing with the reopening now.

Nikki Fried  29:02

Yeah, this is you know, really feeding our kids has been one of my major platform issues and, and something that is near and dear to my heart of wanting to combat it. We have again, I overseer a $1.3 billion program that feeds up to again 2 million of our kids per year. And we all know that hunger holds people back. When children are hungry, it’s harder for them to focus and to learn and are more difficult for them to really succeed. And millions of our children depend on the school meals for so many of our kids. This is the only meal of the day that they can actually count on. And so we have been outside of even before the pandemic, this was a major priority and has always been for my entire life. So we’ve launched several initiatives to tackle the hunger and schools for a crucial part of that, you know, first two years in Florida 850,000 of our kids struggle with food insecurity and  a School Nutrition Program is a way to address this issue and really to help ensure our children can have access to nutrition that they need to be healthy and successful. You know, so many of these kids just don’t have consistent meals at home. And so one new program that we launched is the FDACS hunger free school campus program, which encourages schools to play an active role in reducing food insecurity on their own campuses and in the community, and work to increase the amount of free meals provided to the students. Because while we have our free lunches, free reduced lunches. And while you have access to breakfast, I’ve called on for universal breakfast. Because there’s still a stigma that’s attached to the child coming into school and going right to a cafeteria for breakfast. They’re their friends and peers will know that they need the breakfast. So we need to be coming with new ideas of bringing the food to the kids, whether it’s in homeroom or first period or food trucks, and just allow it to be access to everybody to start off the school day. So this has been, again, a really big priority for for me. And this pandemic really brought these challenges, you know, to our, you know, to really work with this food insecurity. And again, most of our kids rely on these schools. And so we needed to make sure that we moved very fast. And our Commissioner of Education on a Friday announced that schools were going to be closed for the foreseeable future. My team over the course of the weekend, were on calls throughout the entire weekend, with all of our 67 counties, the school boards and making sure that they had their own, you know, every school district has to run their own programs, but it’s our job to make sure that they actually have programs that we can workshop with them other issues, ideas, Hey, have you thought about, because you are a huge rural community have you thought about ways to take the food directly to the families or if you know, you happen to be in a low Economic Community, where parents may have to go to work, or may not have a car, you know, and so we spent a lot of time thinking through all the nuances of every community to make sure that we had, you know, our summer break spot program, which typically only gets activated during the summers up and running so that not a single kid was going to not have food, just because their schools were were were closed. We moved fast to make the food available. And to make sure again, that, you know, we gave them the access that was so critical. And by working with our partners throughout the state, we have been able to serve 74 million meals into Florida children’s since March. But unfortunately, you’re talking about you know, the the reopening. A lot of these school districts are now losing a lot of their own dollars. And, you know, we saw just during up until August $270 million across the entire state. And we were estimating another $360 for this academic year. Because if you think about it, a lot of kids go into the cafeteria that may not have free and reduced that are, they’re with their friends and they will pay for lunch. Or you may go in and buy an extra apple or an extra bag of chips. All that money now does not get brought into the school system. So a lot of their schools districts are, really have lost a lot of money and are having to make some really tough decisions, whether to you know, cut employees, whether to scale back the types of food and the quality of food, or the frequency of the food. And of course, this is not, this is not something that we should ever be, you know, it should never be an option, we should always have the right funds that are necessary to feed our kids. And just last last week, it was revealed that the school districts have received some CARES Act funding, but not a single Food Service Program that we’ve talked to has received any of it. So you know, we are working really hard and we continue to remain vigilant. And we’ll do everything we can to ensure that our children can access the school meals.

Alyssa Dinberg  33:55

Are there any specific programs that you’re especially proud of? Whether it be for rural or urban schools,

Nikki Fried  34:03

I mean, all of it. We, you know, not only during the pandemic, but we spent a lot of time talking through Farm to School programs being ways to educate our children on on how to farm on how to, how important that is, you know, getting them exposed to livestock and chickens. And you know, we’ve seen school districts that also do a lot on solar and trying to move the ball forward and see the interaction and in water conservation. So being able to promote those types of programs and to really encourage other schools and other school districts to kind of move forward on some of those things. One, it’s hands on. It gives people it gives our kids a sense of pride when they grow their own strawberries or tomatoes. And so we really have been pushing a lot of the Farm to School programs, you know, outside of even the pandemic.

Alyssa Dinberg  34:52

I love that that’s amazing, encouraging kids to grow things at home. I, as I said in the intro, I’m a recovery coordinator for a county and working with the school district has been really, really interesting for me. And one of the things that they struggle with, and I’m sure your school districts do as well, is the constant back and forth between in learning and at home learning. And how do you how do you find a way to support the kids when there’s no consistency and how they’re learning? So it’s it’s definitely been an interesting experience working with them and working on those types of issues.

Nikki Fried  35:27

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Alyssa Dinberg  35:31

So last summer, your department launched the Be SMART Florida campaign to encourage social distancing, mask wearing and other measures to stop the spread of COVID. Can you talk about what be SMART is?

Nikki Fried  35:44

Yes. Be SMART Florida, is a consumer awareness campaign that really tries to help to remind our Floridians of the essentials, you know, science based measures that we all must do to slow down the spread of COVID-19. So SMART is an acronym for S – social distance, M – mask up, A – avoid crowds, R – remember to wash your hands, and T – throw away disposable items like masks, gloves and wipes. The campaign is about asking Floridians to all make these small actions with proven results to really help spread, to really help spread,  slow down the spread of the virus. The campaign, you know, was fun and interactive. We had short videos from well known Floridians and influencers, sharable graphics and important information and a social media toolkit that really encourages everyone to help spread the word. We asked, we work with athletes, members of Congress, local leaders from our Mayors of Miami, as well as Tampa and community leaders to really partner like United Way and many other of our organizations across the state. As Florida’s consumer protection agency, our department takes seriously the responsibility to help Florida’s people, our businesses, and really help keep our economy safe. All with many, you know, as many livelihoods and lives are on the line, we don’t have a moment to lose. That’s why we launched Be SMART. So when there is a lot more certainly that we need to be doing, including a statewide mask mandate, which I’ve asked to put into place, and I remain hopeful that through an increased awareness of working together, that we can all do our part to be COVID-19.

Alyssa Dinberg  37:28

That’s amazing that that program sounds fantastic.

Nikki Fried  37:31

Yes, it was a lot of fun to do getting, seeing people put in their videos and their own spins on on wearing a mask. It was a lot of fun to put together and to see how many people across, you know, all party lines in different parts of our state truly come together to share the same message.

Alyssa Dinberg  37:51

That’s awesome. So I have one more question for you. As you know, most of our listeners are local government employees or local government enthusiasts. I was wondering how should Local Government Leaders engage with departments like yours in their respective states? Or if they happen to be working in Florida, how should they engage directly with your department?

Nikki Fried  38:13

Yeah, we have I mean, we, I, to the to the not happiness of my, of my staff. I’m very accessible. I, you know, I am on the phones 24/7 and talking to constituents, talking to our local electeds, from our members of our House or Senate, to our congressional delegation to our local mayors, and county and city commissioners, because there is so much information and so much help. And this really needs to be a partnership between our local governments, our state governments and our national governments. And the only way that we truly serve the people that we represent is by working together, we’re not always going to be on the same page. And we’re not always gonna have the same party affiliation. But if we always put the people first, then we’re going to win. And so I you know, really spent a lot of time developing those relationships, working together on like things like the school nutrition program. We have a brand new mayor down in Miami, who also happens to be the first female mayor of Miami-Dade County. And so we talk a lot about water conservation, resiliency of our communities, how we can work together. Our farmland is all over the state of Florida, our largest agricultural county happens to be Palm Beach County, which happens to be also one of our third largest counties in the state by population. So working with them and understanding some of the nuances and understanding that when agriculture succeeds, they succeed you know when when they’re local, but these are local businesses, these are the employers of like I said, 2 million jobs across the state. So we’ve got to be in conjunction with each other. And there’s a lot of things that we can do as we talk through, you know, urban farms. You know, we need the partnership as we do more and more research on you know, one of my staples, Cannabis, my staple issues is hemp and bringing hemp here to the state of Florida and working with our, our local universities. So it really is all hands on deck and the only way the government can truly be effective and efficient is when we work together. So I have, you know, probably almost everybody every elected has my phone number, I don’t text, for anybody who needs to know, I turned off that tech that that availability on my cell phone, just because it’s a one incoming is way too much. But also we have very strict public records and sunshine laws here that makes everything in the sunshine as far as all the communication the work that we do as elected officials. So rather than people so how are we going to get in touch with this, it just call me you know that back to the days of like, you know, the telephone, just pick up the phone and call. And you know, so and as I travel the state, when I’ve traveled to a certain city or to a county, and make sure that we reach out to those elected officials while I’m there to see if there’s anything they need from us up in Tallahassee or issues that I can continue to elevate for them. But so as local leaders know I’m always available by phone call or email away. And so you can certainly always call our office as well. And I’ll give you that number, which is 850-617-7700. Or you can always email me at [email protected] and that’s spelled out [email protected] – like in Florida, D – like in Department, A – like in agriculture, C – like in consumer, S – like in services.gov. We’ve got a fantastic website which is just www.fdacs.gov that we revamped a lot since taking office to make it more user friendly and more accessible to everybody. And you know, we really do pride ourselves on being out there and being able to be a support system to to not just our electeds but to all of the citizens of our state.

Alyssa Dinberg  41:58

Wow, thank you so much for providing that information. I’m sure that we will have some residents reach out to you I really appreciate it and I’m sure they will as well.

Nikki Fried  42:07

Absolutely.

Alyssa Dinberg  42:09

So I have one last question. I actually lied I have one last question. This is how we end every episode. If you were the Gov Love DJ for the day, what song would you pick as the Closeout music for this episode?

Nikki Fried  42:23

Whoo Good one. Oh, that that is a good one. Um, you know there is, oh my god, there is a new Alicia Keys song. Oh God,m now the name is it’s an, a totally, but basically about being a fighter. And you know, standing up against all odds and just putting yourself out there I remember but it’s by Alicia Keys and it’s just a beautiful song. Just talking about you know how to rise up against adversity, no adversity and challenges and really tried to make you a stronger person.

Alyssa Dinberg  43:00

Perfect! I bet our producers easily find that from that information, Well, thank you so much. This was very very interesting for me and I’m sure our listeners as well. It’s It’s rare that we get somebody in your type of position on the episode and so I truly appreciate the time I know you’re super busy. But I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me. Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders Network and you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLove. Thanks for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about Local Government.

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