Levy man finalist for exclusive honor

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Medal of Honor winners choose winner

By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

Bill Brown, a Levy County resident who has devoted much of his life to helping feed the hungry in North Central Florida, is among 20 finalists for an honor bestowed by this country's most exclusive organization — the living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which has fewer than 90 members, bestows the nation's highest civilian award on three individuals annually on March 25, National Medal of Honor Day in a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
Ten of the finalists are individuals who have performed an extraordinary act of heroism and the other 10 are chosen for a lifetime of work that places the well-being of others before themselves.
Ironically enough, Brown and his wife, Verna, may not be able to attend the ceremony because they cannot afford the trip.
"We have been invited to Washington," he said. "But it's a lot of logistics and a lot of money. It's a lot of money to go up for two days."
Besides, he could be busy harvesting turnips, turnip greens and mustard greens — something he did this week at a farm before doing a phone interview.
Brown, the founder of the Levy County Food Bank, The Children's Table and the Tri-County Community Outreach, said he found out he was nominated for the prestigious award by his granddaughter, Fatima Knapp of Gainesville. "She came across this while playing on the computer," Brown said.  She did not tell the couple of the nomination. When word came out that he was a finalist, she revealed what she had done.                                                             
"I am stunned. It's a total surprise," Brown said of being a finalist.  "Verna sat down a week ago Tuesday at her computer, went to her emails and she had an email on this. And that's the first inkling we had. We are just absolutely stunned."
Brown says he is in great company. "To give you an idea of the caliber of these people, the young man who pulled the Congresswoman (Gabrielle Giffords) to safety after she was shot is a finalist. ... There's a doctor that for years has been treating children free of charge.
"Do we expect to win? We would be the most surprised people in the U.S.," he said. "I wonder — with what some of these people have done — why are we in the group."
Former Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks who helped Brown with the Food Bank, said "I am so thrilled that his work has been recognized because he and his wife both have given of themselves and their time and financially out of their own pocket — mostly in Levy County."
Rooks recalled that shortly before the Food Bank drive last Thanksgiving a call came in the evening about a family that needed food. "So Mr. Brown loaded up a box of food. As he steps off the steps on his porch, he falls breaks his leg, but he loads up that box of food and with that broken leg delivered the food," she said. "Then he went to the hospital to see about his leg. That's how dedicated they are to the people of Levy County — when you put somebody else's needs way above your own."
Of course, she recalls, the flip side of knowing Brown is that he is a tireless recruiter for volunteers.
"It was at Christmastime and he got a truck and he had a few people, and me and my granddaughter, and we went  to Arcadia and we picked grapefruit and tangerines and oranges and loaded up this big truck and brought 'em back so we would have fresh fruit in the baskets we provided
"I was never so tired after that day."
Brown said he started his work in 1996.
"We started in our garden and it got food to primarily the elderly," Brown said.
It was while in Trenton where the Browns were foster parents that an investigator with the Department of Children and Families approached them and said, "I have a family. They don't have a crumb in the house."
The Browns went to the Hitchcock's store and filled grocery carts with food to be taken tot he family.
"Another week and it was another case worker," he said. Then the calls started coming from other places. "And we would deliver all over."
He said, "Verna was working as a nurse then and she would come home at night and that was our dates, we would deliver some food."
With the dawn of the 21st Century, the work expanded when Farm Share obtained food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Brown expanded his work to 53 counties to disperse the food. "I hit a bit of luck," Brown said.  He said 8,980,00 pounds of food was distributed in 2001. "That's the year we won the Gainesville Sun Volunteer of the Year Award."
Today his group, The Children's Table runs over a million pounds a year of food between food share groups and farms.
Brown said right now the groups "that I got involved, or have got started, are feeding approximately 5,000 families a month."
He said he no longer gives the food away himself, he gets the trucks to pick it up and take it to distribution points, like a church in Bronson church where 80-90 people pick up bread on Mondays.
"Last year we formed the Levy County Food Bank and an outreach that goes to two towns a month," he said. "They made me chair of the Levy County Food Bank and we had food drives in the schools and the county and the cities." The food is distributed to Tri-County Community Outreach, Children's Table, Community Outreach and the weekly Bronson food distribution.
In addition to obtaining food from farmers, Brown had recruited people like Tyler Beauchamp of Bronson FFA, who planted several acres of peas last year for The Children's Table and this year will add to the pease with three acres of sweet corn.
He noted that Don Green, Hodges Farm and others in the county give "tons and tons" of watermelons for distribution to the hungry.
"The community is starting to grasp what we are doing but we need more farmers participating and doing a couple of acres for the needy," he said. "I'll even buy the seed. If they donate the crop we can give them a tax (deduction) letter. They can deduct it at market price."
"I've done nothing," he said. "It's the hundreds of volunteers who have made this happen, the kids at the university, the people in the community. Nobody gets paid. They buy their own gas."