By Bekah Rhea
COVID-19 is spurring us on to take up a wide variety of hobbies. Gardening is one of the most popular, presenting the opportunity to spend time outdoors and away from Netflix. In fact, so many people are starting their “COVID gardens” that seasoned community gardeners like CBF’s Rick Burnette are having some trouble finding seeds.
As the CBF Domestic Disaster Response Manager, field personnel Rick Burnette and his wife, Ellen, are no strangers to emergencies. Yet the current pandemic is requiring ministers to adapt in some previously unprecedented ways. In particular, the Burnettes are on the front lines of the food shortages and food scarcity exacerbated by COVID-19.
Having served as CBF Global Missions field personnel in Thailand from 1994 through 2009, the Burnettes specialized in agricultural development ministry, founding two NGOs devoted to sustainable, asset-based community development. In 2017, they founded Cultivate Abundance, a Florida 501(c)(3). Prior to establishing the nonprofit, Rick, as a gardener, found himself with a surplus of his own crops, including mangoes and starfruit. At first, he offered extras to his American neighbors in hopes of sharing that abundance; but it turns out that not everyone in Florida is into starfruit.
Not far from his home in North Fort Myers, Florida, lies the community of Immokalee. Immokalee is an unincorporated agricultural town of approximately 20,000, composed largely of migrant farmworkers who handle massive amounts of America’s favorite produce. Rick described the area’s vast corporate farm fields of “tomatoes, squash and watermelons,” just a few of the commodities that are distributed throughout the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. Due to subtropical climate, Rick explained, “in the winter there are four to five hundred trucks leaving Immokalee every day,” with approximately 35,000 pounds of produce in each load.
Despite their hand in feeding America, many of the farmworkers in Immokalee—with a poverty rate of almost 45%—are food-insecure themselves. Initially, the Burnettes brought their extra garden produce to share through a food pantry in this food desert where he “knew that it would be eaten and appreciated.” Since 2018, a growing number of church/organizational gardens and a small farm, as well as participating home gardeners, have joined the cause of Cultivate Abundance by growing and donating nutrient-dense produce for food-insecure Immokalee farmworkers.
As an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) practitioner, Rick recognized the ongoing efforts of some Immokalee residents to produce a little of their own food, despite the challenge of renting in cramped trailer parks. Prior to engagement in the community through Cultivate Abundance, although well-meaning outsiders had remarked that “there aren’t any gardens” in Immokalee, Rick and Ellen “knew there had to be gardens somewhere. Community-based surveys quickly revealed numerous small and scattered plantings in the trailer parks. It’s from these local gardeners that we’ve been determining the Immokalee way of gardening.”
Cultivate Abundance, in partnership with Misión Peniel, a ministry of the Peace River Presbytery—PC (USA)—which operates a food bank and other community services, focuses on “producing, harvesting and sharing home and community abundance” to combat food insecurity in Immokalee. One of the primary vehicles for this is a Misión Peniel-based community garden, where many Immokalee women have been involved in growing and harvesting some of the food.
Both the community garden and donations from partnering gardeners allow for “tapping into different sources that go beyond food banks,” which are under pressure now more than ever. In April alone, Cultivate Abundance and its gardening/small-farm partners were able to grow, collect and share over 2,000 lbs. of fresh tropical fruit, vegetables and herbs that are valued by Misión Peniel’s Guatemalan, Mexican and Haitian clients—approximately 400 per week.
Besides requiring more time to manage four garden sites, handle produce donations and the need to assist with Friday food distributions at Misión Peniel due to fewer available volunteers, Rick explained that COVID-19 hasn’t shifted his ministry as much as it has shifted his methods to meet original goals of growing and sharing “local, culturally appropriate food.”
What does community gardening look like when it is best for people not to leave the house? In this case, it is container gardening. Cultivate Abundance was already encouraging home container gardening before COVID-19. But for now, the importance of this personal source of produce cannot be understated. In fact, Cultivate Abundance is currently helping 30 Immokalee households to access sets of container gardens in which to grow leafy greens to supplement their own food needs as the pandemic has disrupted local employment opportunities and access to the Misión Peniel community garden.
Burnette noted that the pandemic has “exposed weaknesses in the American food system,” where “we are dealing with agriculture at scale. Immokalee’s agricultural industry isn’t designed to feed just Florida; it is designed to feed much of America; hence recent mass dumping and plowing under of crops on the large farms.”
He emphasized that in Immokalee they are acutely aware of the impact of this pandemic on farmers and food, acknowledging that Cultivate Abundance is not “trying to fix America’s food system.” After all, that would be a gigantic and complex undertaking. What individuals and families can do is to shorten the food chain, where possible buying local food and even growing some of their own and perhaps learning to freeze and can the produce.
It’s possible that home, church and community gardeners can cultivate abundance in this time of scarcity by sharing “when they find themselves with abundance–which isn’t hard” for many gardeners.
The Burnettes and Immokalee remind us that the best enemy of scarcity is relationship, like a Ft. Myers woman who recently offered Cultivate Abundance one of her giant jackfruit, impossible to eat on her own, or a church with heavily-laden mango trees sharing such bounty as well. Ethical food production and sustainable agriculture starts with us, even in times of crisis.
Cultivate Abundance provides a great container gardening guide for those working on their “COVID gardens.” If you live in Southwest Florida, you too can share your abundance with Immokalee. After months of social distancing, we find that man cannot live on take-out alone. But we can start small gardens to become a network of neighbors that feed one another.
To learn more about and support the work of Rick Burnette and Cultivate Abundance, visit www.cbf.net/burnette.