By Blake Tommey
Did you know that the farmworkers who produce two-thirds of the United States’ wintertime tomatoes often have a hard time feeding themselves and their families? In fact, when Rick and Ellen Burnette, directors of Cultivate Abundance, began interviewing migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, they found that families may at times only have tortillas dipped in salsa juice for a meal.
“Most people think, ‘Wait a minute, this is Immokalee. They’re sitting on piles of tomatoes. How can there be hunger?’” Rick said. “For one, people can’t live on tomatoes alone. But more importantly, farmworkers receive extremely low pay. Just to make the equivalent of minimum wage, one worker would have to pick two tons of tomatoes in one day.”
“What a cruel irony that the families who are harvesting our food and who work harder than most of us can ever imagine working cannot meet their most basic needs,” Ellen added.
The alarming reality of migrant farmworkers, however, was no surprise to the Burnettes. Prior to arriving in Immokalee (pronounced like ‘broccoli’), the couple served as CBF field personnel for 15 years, fostering agricultural development alongside migrant farmers in Thailand. In 2013, the Burnettes brought their expertise to Southwest Florida, where some of the United States’ largest mass-production farms utilize cheap labor from Mexican, Central American and Haitian immigrants. Despite working from dawn to dusk picking tomatoes, citrus, melons or sweet corn, farmworkers typically live in decaying trailer homes and experience severe food insecurity. That’s where Cultivate Abundance comes in, Rick said.
“Our approach is food solidarity,” he explained. “We want to saturate Immokalee with nutrient-dense, locally-grown food of preference. But our work is also participatory. We’re not bringing in green beans from Michigan. We’re partnering and growing food locally that Guatemalans like to eat, food that Haitians and Mexicans prefer and that reflects their heritage. We’re in a common cause. We recognize that farmworkers harvest the food we eat, and we’re in solidarity by growing the food that they eat.”
Cultivate Abundance works in close partnership with Misión Peniel, a spiritual and social advocacy ministry of the Peace River Presbytery, PC(USA) that provides a hot meal every Friday for farmworkers and their families. The Misión Peniel team, led by pastor Miguel Estrada and Ruth DeYoe, also work tirelessly to obtain surplus food from Southwest Florida food banks and distribute it among families, Rick says. Too often, however, that surplus is not always the healthiest food. Nutritious fresh produce—sometimes on the verge of spoiling—only occupies a portion of the allotment, he explained.
Cultivate Abundance helps fill that gap by mobilizing a network of home and community gardens throughout parts of Southwest Florida, including the Burnettes‘ own home garden. In addition to several ministry-based partner gardens, two large community gardens, one at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers and another at Misión Peniel in Immokalee, serve farmworker households directly. Migrant families help care for the Immokalee garden and are free to harvest, Ellen said, though the majority of produce goes to Misión Peniel for distribution every Friday. In addition, Cultivate Abundance has worked with more than 20 Immokalee households to evaluate and demonstrate home container gardening, despite challenges such as limited space, roaming feral chickens and the occasional spraying of herbicide by landlords.
As of August, Cultivate Abundance’s gardening network had yielded more than 3,000 pounds of pumpkin, cassava, mango, avocado, collard greens, eggplant and more, all of which Misión Peniel distributes directly to farmworker households each Friday. Every week, approximately 450 people line up to receive a hot meal as well as fresh produce and other food items to take home. That’s why the Burnettes’ ongoing mission is to invite other households and partners, farmworker or not, to start their own gardens and empower more migrant families with whole, nutritious food, Ellen explained.
“What we’re doing is in solidarity with migrants but it’s also empowering for them, for the people our society marginalizes,” she said. “Cultivate Abundance wants to do something with them, not for them. We want to be in partnership with them as we all learn together how to grow food here.”
Cultivate Abundance continues to seek donations of appropriate types of fruits and vegetables from Southwest Florida gardeners and institutions to share with farmworker families. To learn more and partner in restoring justice to migrant farmworkers, visit www.cultivateabundance.org. To learn about the work the Burnettes do beyond Cultivate Abundance and support these ministries, visit www.cbf.net/burnette.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. Learn more at www.cbf.net.