By Jennifer Colosimo
In the southeastern U.S., the tiny town of Immokalee, Florida, is home to a growing population of migrant workers who make up a large part of the local workforce. They’re predominantly farmworkers who help grow millions of tons of food for exportation every year.
Ironically, for these residents, the place they call home is actually a food desert. They’re overlooked and underpaid and housing is expensive. The food that’s available is also costly and isn’t often what they prefer. But thanks to handfuls of seeds originating from their home countries, things are starting to change and life for an entire community is tasting a whole lot better.
The effort is led by CBF field personnel Rick Burnette and his wife, Ellen. With their combined six decades of experience in agriculture around the world, including 15 years of agriculture and community development work on the Thai-Burma border, they founded Cultivate Abundance in 2017 with the goal of growing, collecting and sharing food that would not only help nourish their Immokalee neighbors, but do so in a purposeful, thoughtful way to build bridges between the cultures there. And ultimately, it will encourage others around the country to do the same.
Immokalee is a town of about 25,000 people, most of them migrant farmworkers and most originating from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. With few CBF churches nearby, Burnette and his team work to leverage relationships through CBF Florida and connect with churches far and wide to raise awareness of the migrant workers and refugees in their respective communities, helping them know how they might be able to connect and honor those neighbors through their ethnic foods.
“We can grow so much here in this climate; but the problem is that these farmworkers spend all day on the farm, and have so much knowledge, but cannot put what they know to use at home,” said Burnette. “There isn’t really room to garden. But if Cultivate Abundance and our partner gardens can grow the kind of food that they connect with, then we can help them in the place where they are active, which is in their kitchens.”
With its tropical climate, about 95 types of crops grown through Cultivate Abundance partners help beef up the nutritious types of food that this community craves. Through more than 32 gardens tended by individuals, local churches, and organizations in 2020 (a number that is growing), Cultivate Abundance shared nearly 14 tons of food last year. This food was distributed through Misión Peniel, a Presbyterian PC(USA) ministry based in Immokalee that serves as the main partner of Cultivate Abundance, operating as a food pantry and offering other social services. Misión Peniel also hosts the main Cultivate Abundance garden in Immokalee. Local food being grown and shared includes bananas, cassava, taro, tropical yams, collard greens, mustard greens, lettuce, cilantro, field peas and more.
“It’s easy to say we’re helping grow foods that are a comfort to our migrant worker neighbors,” said Burnette. “But this is not just food that’s like mac-and-cheese; many of these are really healthy foods. We’re not just feeding somebody, but trying to feed them well. We’re providing food that they value, and they understand that we are honoring them with that; so it’s less likely to be wasted.”
To Burnette, partnering with these groups of local migrants and refugees to grow the food that they connect with is the foundation to cultivating something even bigger—Beloved Community.
“We recognize that we need to be working together as CBF churches, and with churches across the spectrum, particularly those that are dealing with systemic racism and poverty to create that Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about,” said Burnette. “It has become one of our distinctives at CBF and, for us, our gardening work is part of how we’re doing that.”
For some, it may start very small. “Rick planted a real seed when he brought a little baggie of chipilín (a leafy herb from Central America) seeds for me to try cultivating,” said Reverend Tamara Tillman Smathers, minister of education and administration at First Baptist Church, Rome, GA, and a gardener with her own greenhouse. Smathers had worked with Burnette during their mutual time with CBF Global Missions and he knew she had a green thumb. The hope was (and still is) that her young seedlings could be shared among the area’s significant Guatemalan and Southern Mexico populations.
“It was already a challenge that only about 10 percent of chipilín seeds actually sprout; but the greater challenge for Rick was finding Guatemalan families with whom to share the plants once they were ready to transplant,” said Smathers. “I told him that I didn’t know any Guatemalans—not one! But as I contacted several educators in our congregation to discover if any of their students might have families who would be familiar with the plant, I realized I had underestimated my connections.”
A personal curiosity developed in Smathers as she tended those seeds. One day, on a walk around her neighborhood, she noticed a familiar landscaper to whom she often waved. This time, she stopped and introduced herself. She texted Burnette later that evening to say, “Today I met Olivia. Her husband mows lawns in the neighborhood. They are from southern Mexico and were excited about the chance to grow chipilín. I ran home and gathered three finger-high plants strong enough to transplant and an assortment of Roma tomato plants. He said he had once grown some and sold a fist-size bunch for $2.50. It may be that this gift will be an income-producer.”
The next connection came shortly after, when she realized a long-time friend from her Bible study at FBC Rome had actually grown up in Guatemala. The two talked about their love for gardening, and her friend excitedly shared tamale and soup recipes that call for the beloved leafy herb (after she corrected Smathers’s pronunciation, of course). Smathers took her a few seedlings the very next week.
Since then, she has found even another connection with the delivery of chipilín seedlings, boasting a 50% success rate between her greenhouse and the garden.
“Rick’s work is about growing food,” said Smathers, who envisions women gathered around simmering soup pots one day. “But more importantly, Rick’s ministry is about cultivating relationships. In my case, Rick has not only planted seeds to nourish a community, but also an idea to grow a new one.”
In Kansas City, members of Englewood Baptist Church have planted seeds of a variety of Guatemalan corn provided by Cultivate Abundance in hopes they’ll have maize to share. The corn is a revered type that people from the Guatemalan uplands use to make masa, which is the dough for tamales and tortillas; (the leaves are harvested to wrap tamales), as well as black beans. They’ll send some of the corn that they grow back to Immokalee, but will share most of it in their own community. The idea is that it makes personal connections in a way that’s culturally relevant. It inspires community and creates authentic neighbors.
Currently, Cultivate Abundance works to expand their network locally and be able to produce even more food for the Immokalee community and beyond. In this next year, as the pandemic lifts, Burnette plans to actively see his partnerships on a deeper level, and collaborate more with neighbors to better honor their food knowledge. The Cultivate Abundance team, including Immokalee native, Lupita Vazquez, wants to document the foods they have, learning more about how such food is grown and also prepared in local kitchens.
And, of course, they want more people to get involved. For now, Cultivate Abundances’s efforts are mostly local, but they’re also trying to encourage churches in other locations to do the same – to provide local solutions to local problems. The hope is that more CBF churches will develop a greater awareness of their migrant neighbors, and that they will learn more about their stories, understand why they’re here, and in that process appreciate the situation they’re in and seek ways to help – be it gardening, or something else.
As in the case with Smathers, not all regions can grow the plentiful crops that Immokalee can. But Burnette points out that it’s not just about growing the food. “That’s what works for us, but other CBF churches may reach out in other ways,” said Burnette. “[CBF] has an international team that is serving migrant communities and refugees in many creative ways. In Immokalee, we are able to do that through addressing food insecurity and honoring their food culture, celebrating who they are through that.
“Our hope for the CBF community is that our congregations be aware of their migrant neighbors and consider how they might be able to better relate to these communities around them,” he continued. “That’s important because these workers are often performing vital services in our communities that we take for granted, or don’t always appreciate. If we can recognize these migrant communities and honor them, we can help to build bridges across cultures—something that is invaluable, especially in this day and time.”
In the kitchen or not, that does sound really good.