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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Learning Together: First steps to achieving community-sourced nutrition in Immokalee

During Holy Week, Miguel Estrada and Ruth DeYoe of Misión Peniel arranged for Ellen and I to meet with 13 Immokalee women. From Guatemala and southern Mexico, the women’s ages ranged approximately between 20 and 65. Able only to spare an hour or two away from chores at home, many brought their small children along.

Ellen and I quickly ran through our rehearsed Spanish introductions, thereafter dependent upon Miguel and Ruth for interpretation. After Ruth broke the ice by inviting everyone to share about Holy Week traditions in their home communities, Ellen and I continued the discussion by asking about their ability to grow household fruit and vegetables back in Mexico and Guatemala. Each of the women affirmed that despite other challenges, they could indeed farm, garden and forage back home.

Switching to their present circumstances, we asked whether any member of their own households had missed meals over the past year due to food scarcity. Almost in unison, they replied, “No.” But they immediately clarified that many family meals had consisted only of tortillas and salsa juice; no meat, no vegetables or anything else. These skimpy meals are especially common when income diminishes after Immokalee’s winter harvest season is finished.

To better clarify the issue, we asked why it was necessary to eat only tortillas and salsa juice. They explained that quality, nutritious food of their preference was expensive and difficult to access. Attempting to get to the very root of the problem, we then asked a seemingly ridiculous question, “Why is food too expensive?” The obvious response was, “We don’t make enough money.”

We then changed the subject to local gardening, conceding that we discovered growing fruit and vegetables at our Southwest Florida home to be somewhat challenging.

They agreed that it’s not easy to garden in Immokalee. Asked why, the group offered a litany of challenges including pests, roaming chickens, limited land due to the tight clusters of mobile homes, and in some cases, gardening prohibitions by the owners of those less-than-pristine trailers.

In less than an hour, these ladies had defined their basic food security issue: affordable, quality food is difficult to access locally. In addition, the root causes of this issue were revealed by our use of a simple community development diagnostic tool known as a problem tree. Having helped them develop their own problem tree, we could then begin identifying possible actions for addressing the main food access issue.

Meeting again two weeks later, we reviewed the main issue and its underlying causes, making a few modifications in the process. Then, we began flipping the problem tree to design a relevant solution tree. This was done by rewording each original negative statement to become a corresponding positive statement. For example, the problem statement, “not enough land for household gardens” was reworded to be, “suitable ways are found to garden in limited spaces”. By reverse engineering the problem statements to be viable solution statements, our group began to identify related, hopefully attainable, goals and steps.

Ultimately, the main issue became the overall objective: affordable, quality food of choice is made locally available. We also envisioned how gardening might be possible through: 1) control of pests and chickens; 2) food production techniques for cramped places; and 3) locating and developing suitable community garden sites.

Obviously, the very notion of simply turning this problem tree “frown upside down” to determine solutions is much easier said than done. But such solutions, derived from the previously identified problems, offer a necessary and participatory place to start so that farmworker households can begin to overcome obstacles to household and community food security in Immokalee.

Follow up conversations are planned. Ideally, these events will include as many local stakeholders as possible - i.e., farmworker families, Misión Peniel and other food distribution ministries, local government representatives - to identify realistic strategies, goals, activities, partners, techniques, budget, etc.

Fortunately, some solutions seem easier than others. One such household food production approach – container gardening - is already being tested by this group of ladies and some local allies.

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