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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Responding to Food Insecurity in Immokalee

Despite Florida supplying 2/3rds of America’s wintertime tomatoes, Immokalee’s farmworkers – the vast majority being migrants – struggle with poverty and food insecurity. According to 2015 census data, Immokalee’s poverty rate of 43.9 percent is over three times higher than the official US level.

Obviously, a high poverty rate goes hand-in-hand with household food insecurity considering the minimal food purchasing power of low-income families. Compounding the effect of inadequate income is the high cost of groceries in Immokalee.

The Economic Research Center has determined that Immokalee’s food costs are higher than the US average. Having conducting an informal July 2017 price comparison of select food items (e.g., eggs, oatmeal, chicken, cabbage, rice, pinto beans, sugar, sardines, spaghetti) sold in stores catering to Immokalee’s poorest, we observed that the cost of these products was on average 25 percent higher than those sold by a major grocery chain located in the somewhat more affluent outskirts of town.

Another indicator of local food insecurity is the USDA’s designation of major portions of Immokalee and its environs as food deserts - areas lacking access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up a full and healthy diet.

Migration status is another factor affecting the accessibility of food. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 66.7 percent of the residents in Immokalee, FL are US citizens, lower than the national average of 93 percent. Among those residents, there are 3.8 times more Hispanic residents (18,615 people) than any other race or ethnicity (followed by Black and White residents).

The current push to deport undocumented immigrants has led to tremendous anxiety among the Latin American community. Marcie Dallmann, a former colleague of ours who has recently conducted research on home gardening in minority neighborhoods of Ft. Myers, shares that some local Hispanics are avoiding particular locations, including schools and grocery stores, for fear of being arrested and deported.

In addition to food access challenges, the inferior quality of the cheapest available food may also result in hidden hunger. Caused by a chronic lack of vitamins and minerals, hidden hunger is reportedly a growing problem in the US, particularly among low- and middle-income Americans who struggle to access or afford the extra cost of essential nutrition (Bush and Welsh, Hidden hunger: America’s growing malnutrition epidemic, The Guardian, Feb. 10, 2015).

Fortunately, there are a few local organizations, such as Mision Peniel, that distribute hot meals and other food items to local families in need. And beginning in 2018, Cultivate Abundance will be augmenting these efforts by promoting household and community gardens as well as sourcing surplus produce from participating gardeners in the region.

Home gardens – even small ones - are recognized for supplying much needed micronutrients and proteins to the household diet. Marcie Dallmann points out that the diversity of fruits, vegetables and spices grown in the garden not only enriches the household diet but can act as a nutritional buffer when food is otherwise in short supply.

Home gardening does not necessarily mean that homegrown food will be cheaper than food purchased at the market. But Marcie reminds us that a major factor in favor of urban home gardening and improved household nutrition would be improved food access rather than the actual cost of food.

What role might you play in improving household nutrition among Immokalee households and beyond?

In the coming months, volunteers will be invited to assist Cultivate Abundance and its local partners with establishing and maintaining strategic community gardens. Additionally, Lee and Collier county gardeners with surplus produce might consider donating appropriate fruit and other crops (more details to come). And financial support of these Cultivate Abundance initiatives is also critical for appropriate engagement and sustained results.

For some, home gardening may seem to be an inadequate approach for overcoming Immokalee’s food security challenges. But as Wendell Berry stated, “It may be too easy to underestimate the power of a garden.”

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