By Marv Knox
Imagine going hungry in a desert while surrounded by a tropical garden.
That’s Ellen and Rick Burnette’s ministry paradox. They serve migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., where industrial farms yield 14 million pounds of fruit and vegetables per day during harvest season. But the people who pick that produce can’t afford it themselves.
Immokalee sits in a bountiful agricultural basket in southwest Florida, nestled among vast farmland despite its sandy soil. The area grows one-third of U.S. wintertime tomatoes, plus sugar cane, squash, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables. Citrus groves stretch to the horizon.
But farmworkers and their families in Immokalee don’t have access to the food they provide for the nation. They live in a “food desert,” abandoned by grocery stores.
The Burnettes have been feeding folks like Immokalee farmworkers almost all their adult lives. After college, they met through the Southern Baptist Journeymen missions program; she served in Japan, and he worked in the Philippines. They became Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, conducting agricultural ministry in Thailand for 15 years. Later, they continued ministry to at-risk people in the States.
In 2016, Rick joined the CBF Global Missions Council. In 2017, the Burnettes launched Cultivate Abundance, a nonprofit that grows, collects and shares food in Immokalee. In 2018, Rick re-joined CBF Global Missions as the domestic disaster-relief coordinator and a field personnel in Immokalee, while Ellen continued as executive director of Cultivate Abundance.
Immokalee is a neighbor to Naples, one of America’s wealthiest communities. But due to factors such as low pay and high rent, farmworkers can’t afford food. Thirty-seven percent of its 25,000 residents live below the poverty line, and thousands live so close to it they can’t tell the difference.
Immokalee’s farmworkers—mostly from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico—receive subsistence wages. “It takes a worker picking two tons of tomatoes a day to make a living wage,” Rick noted. “That’s 4,000 pounds, the weight of a car.”
The farmworkers also pay what the Burnettes call “extortionary rates” for housing. “Rent in Immokalee is as high as in the wealthy surrounding cities of Fort Myers and Naples,” he said. “For that, you get a bed in a dilapidated trailer that houses up to 17 other people.”
In addition, food in the middle of massive farms is scarce and expensive. Grocery chains shunned Immokalee in favor of its wealthy neighbors. Most farmworkers don’t own vehicles and can’t afford transportation. And local convenience stores charge more than city groceries.
“The community that is actually putting food on America’s tables is not able to put nutritious food of cultural preference on their own tables,” Ellen lamented.
So, the Burnettes and Cultivate Abundance partner with other ministries to close the gap—a food-and-nutrition chasm—facing Immokalee’s laborers.
They collaborate with Misión Peniel, a Presbyterian Church (USA) ministry launched by Pastor Miguel Estrada, a native of Guatemala, in 2006.
“We were first exposed to the work of Misión Peniel around 2015, and it gripped us. We felt compelled to engage,” Rick reported. “Our background for decades has been addressing food insecurity, especially in Southeast Asia. Understanding Immokalee did contain a food desert, we thought perhaps community gardening and other approaches would be warranted.”
Cultivate Abundance and Misión Peniel are a match made in heaven’s kitchen. Misión Peniel had already established contacts with regional food banks and developed the ability to procure tons of food staples for Immokalee farmworkers.
Ellen’s and Rick’s decades of cross-cultural agricultural ministry helped them recognize how food speaks to people’s hearts. They supplement food-bank staples with fruits and vegetables farmworkers love.
“We happen to live in an area that we call the tropical fringe, where we can grow a lot of crops that friends from Haiti, Mexico and Guatemala appreciate,” Rick explained. He described food not grown on mammoth industrial farms, but collard greens and turnip greens, varieties of lettuce, plus fruits such as black sapote, coconuts, mangoes, plantains “and all sorts of tropical products.”
Paying attention to and providing “culturally appropriate food” is a vital act of Christian love, Estrada stressed. A garden located behind the Misión Peniel building contributes to that appropriate produce.
So, with Estrada’s blessing and Cultivate Abundance’s emphasis on growing, collecting and sharing nourishing food, Rick set out to build a gastronomic network to fill the stomachs and warm the hearts of Immokalee farmworkers.
“There are a lot of home gardeners (including the Burnettes) who have those foods growing in their backyards and on their patios. There are institutions, even churches, growing these things in small farms,” he explained. “So, our goal was to rally these folks as allies, see what kind of food we could get, and share that at Misión Peniel on a weekly basis.”
Friday is distribution day at Misión Peniel’s food pantry. Throughout the week, Estrada and the Misión Peniel staff receive tons of food-bank staples. On Friday mornings, a small group of volunteers bag that food. In the afternoon, Ellen and more volunteers bag the produce that Rick has collected from home gardeners, a couple of small farms and churches, gathering fresh fruits and vegetables loved by Central Americans and Caribbeans in Immokalee. From mid-afternoon and into early evening, farmworkers receive at least two bags of food—one certain to be culturally appropriate—to sustain them through the following week.
But they’re sustained by far more than food. “When you are feeding culturally appropriate food, you are feeding not just stomachs, but hearts and souls, too. And that makes a huge difference,” Estrada said. “When Rick has (food) that people recognize — the faces, the smiles, the eyes opening — that tells you this is not just food. … It’s not the greens; it’s not the fruit. It’s more than that. … You create connection.”
Across the past three years, that connection with Immokalee farmworkers has endured a couple of crushing hardships, Rick acknowledged.
“When COVID hit, we knew things were going to be rough. People in Immokalee were wondering how they were going to make it,” he recalled. “But COVID interrupted the routines, so that we could ask, ‘What do we do now?’ I feel that was Spirit-led, where we came up with modest goals and were able to broaden our network.”
Broadening the network included working with a small family farm that catered to high-end restaurants, which suddenly lost its market. Cultivate Abundance received grants it used to purchase the produce—providing a struggling farm family with income and struggling farmworkers with food. Also, home gardeners with COVID-bound time on their hands produced more than they could eat, and they shared their bounty.
While Misión Peniel radically altered its Friday distribution system, it never shut down. Immokalee residents continued to receive sorely needed food, along with even-more-needed assurance of God’s love.
Later, those lessons of flexibility and resilience paid extra dividends when Category 4 Hurricane Ian lashed southwest Florida in 2022. “Ironically, COVID pushed us to know what to do when we realize we have to do more,” Rick said.
Immokalee and the large industrial farms missed the worst of Ian’s wrath. But the Burnettes have been helping small farms survive their own devastation. “We’re using whatever assistance we can to help small farms and partner gardeners recover,” he reported.
Surviving adversity has given the Burnettes perspective and filled them with gratitude for CBF and their resources.
“A Place at the Table” is not a slogan, but a literal occurrence for Cultivate Abundance, Ellen said. “For us, it is an actual table. We’re talking about food and how to enable this community … to access food they normally would not have access to. … This is how I express God’s love, and this is how we can love our neighbor.”
CBF’s Offering for Global Missions makes possible the Burnettes’ presence in Immokalee farmworkers’ lives, Rick added. “We are so grateful the CBF world understands the situation with farmworkers and allows us to be the representatives working through Cultivate Abundance. By supporting me as field personnel, it frees up Cultivate Abundance to … actually put food on tables.”
He explained why he feels a deep commitment to Immokalee’s farmworkers: “I’m just a gardener. My family for as far back as you can go, they were digging in the dirt. I’m just grateful to be able to be in league with gardeners, whether it’s Immokalee gardeners or Naples gardeners or Atlanta gardeners. We come together, and we do what we do so others have more. That’s the abundance. That’s God’s economy.”
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of fellowship! Read and share online at http://www.cbf.net/spring23.
God bless you