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  • Rick Burnette

A Year of COVID-19 Response in Immokalee: What Have We Learned?




Recently, I shared about insights gained from a year of Cultivate Abundance’s response to farmworker food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those lessons concerned food production matters such as top performing community garden crops and techniques. Some folks are interested in such. Many aren’t.


There were broader lessons learned as well.


For starters, much has changed over the past year; at least in our home, in our vocation and community, as well as in our church, nation, and world.


We’ve had a year of trying not to forget a mask when leaving the house, of washing hands often, and keeping a safe distance. We’ve had a year of homecooked meals but also missing visits with elderly parents, kids, grandkids, and friends. With increased food insecurity in Immokalee, and with fewer volunteers, we’ve had a year of working longer and harder. We’ve had a year of expecting pushback for wearing a mask in public and tension for insisting that masks be worn in places of shared ministry and worship. We’ve had a year of Zoom. We’ve had a year of weighing necessary outside-of-the-home risks without compromising the health of others and ourselves. We’ve had a year of dreaming of such in our sleep. And we’ve had a year of anxiety and frustration leavened with joy.


But what did we learn?


Regarding American society, we learned that we’re not collectively inclined to do what’s right, e.g., listening to health experts, mitigating risks. We learned further that we must regularly summon up the courage and wisdom to do the right thing.


We learned how to interact with congregations and colleagues mainly through email and Zoom. We learned about the challenges of our partners. And we learned about the generosity of people of faith and conscience when times are tenuous. For example, we received hundreds of facemasks for distribution among our Immokalee neighbors as well as bulk shipments of eight-quart dishpans for a container garden project and financial gifts continued to meet our needs.


Regarding life in Immokalee, we learned how migrant workers get the short end of the stick related to public health measures among other things. We learned that there are wealthier people from outside Immokalee who have no qualms about jumping the line to get vaccinations intended for the farmworker community. But thank God for agencies that partner and advocate for culturally appropriate health education, COVID-19 testing, and vaccinations.


In Immokalee, we learned how the trailer park owners are quick to evict sick workers unable to pay their rent. But thank God for those who provided emergency grants to enable Immokalee’s sick to cover rent so that they could stay home and recuperate.


We learned how fragile our nation’s food system is. When the first wave of the pandemic caused the food and farm industry to shut down, wiping out the jobs of the society’s most vulnerable, food banks and pantries were soon overstretched. But thank God for Cultivate Abundance’s home and partner gardeners who enabled us to grow, collect and share 14 tons of produce during 2020 (74,033 food servings); over four times the amount handled the year before.


How do we sum up what we learned? We learned the importance of being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. We learned that love and charity overcome fear and ugliness. We learned how blessed it is to have allies; both in the trenches and from afar.


And we’ve learned and relearned that “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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