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  • Rick Burnette

Cultivating Food Solidarity Through Participatory Learning and Action


On a recent Saturday morning, over 30 Immokalee neighbors gathered in the Misión Peniel garden for a brief time of exchange and interaction.


While supervised kids colored pictures, the adults assembled themselves around two tables: one for Spanish and anther for Haitian Kreyol.


There were no lectures from experts nor passive observers. With Lupita facilitating feedback from the Spanish-language table and Frantzo engaging the Kreyol group, everyone was an active participant in sharing knowledge and preferences.


The morning’s activities, lasting barely over an hour, were guided by Rebecca, a graduate student with international and US-based nonprofit experience. To investigate local food preferences and the accessibility of various types of farm and garden produce in the Immokalee food desert, she organized a few group-oriented exercises to help garner feedback.


During these activities, around each table, the Kreyol and Spanish participants were invited to state their preferred fruit, vegetables, and herbs. Not surprisingly, between the two groups there were both similarities and differences in feedback. Then using photos and drawings of the listed types of produce, each participant was invited to adhere color coded stickers to help sort and rank more feedback regarding local availability, and sources, for each type of food (e.g., food banks, markets, gardens, foraging).


Relatively quick and simple, the participatory activities organized by Rebecca are like those described by Susan Stewart in her 1998 book, Learning Together. A veterinarian and trainer of community livestock workers (CLW) in South America and Asia, Stewart stresses that CLWs, or other rural change agents, must “encourage the sharing of experiences, knowledge and ideas among individuals and organizations.”


Stewart emphasizes further that to facilitate communities and/or organizations to bring about positive change, promoters must: 1) value the views of the community; 2) design a participatory approach that equips people to analyze their present situation and then act for growth; 3) ensure that more people gain helpful knowledge needed for change; and 4) help the people respect their own knowledge and understanding.


Stewart’s learning together approach is associated with Participatory Leaning and Action (PLA) methodologies developed by international community development practitioners over recent decades. The PLA toolkit emphasizes non-lengthy exchange sessions that make use of visuals such as sketches, simple maps, diagrams, and matrixes. Facilitators employ such options to quickly assist community members and partnering organizations (i.e., nonprofits, community organizations, non-governmental organizations) in:

  • determining addressable challenges

  • identifying community-based expertise

  • confirming other local assets for addressing the stated challenges

  • shaping appropriate ways to move forward that include specific objectives and related activities along with measurable indicators of change.

Data from the recent Saturday morning activity is still being analyzed. But without attempting to speak for the participants or Rebecca, what did Cultivate Abundance expect to gain from an hour of learning together?

  • We looked forward to getting to know more neighbors and deepen relationships.

  • We anticipated that our mutual knowledge of nutritious garden crops preferred by the farmworker community to be further enhanced.

  • We envisioned better understanding the needs and expectations of our Immokalee clients regarding the food assistance efforts of Cultivate Abundance.

  • We hoped that improved partnering opportunities would emerge.

We know that PLA efforts aren’t foolproof. Full participation by community members requires trust and understanding. Given the cultural complexity of that Saturday’s activity, it’s quite possible that we fell short in grasping some of the nuance behind the feedback. Therefore, we are proceeding towards our goals with a degree of caution while seeking other opportunities for clarification.


By the way, this isn’t the first time that Cultivate Abundance has used PLA approaches to facilitate “learning together” experiences.


We kicked off efforts in 2018 among a small group of Immokalee residents to examine why quality food was difficult to access in Immokalee. This effort was described in an earlier Cultivate Abundance blog, Learning Together: First steps to achieving community-sourced nutrition in Immokalee.


By identifying the 2018 root causes of poor access to quality food (e.g., expense, distant grocery stores, gardening challenges due to chickens, bad soil, landlord restrictions) the foundation was laid for Cultivate Abundance’s current efforts such as growing/collecting food of local preference and promoting home container gardening. The exercise also helped us to forge key working relationships with community members.


From the very beginning, Cultivate Abundance has promoted food solidarity, advocating for fair and sustainable food systems while – as much as possible – being engaged in producing and sharing nutritious food that aligns with the cultural preferences. If we are to honor these preferences and sustain such common cause, then working from a PLA approach is essential.


PLA-type activities will continue as we fine tune our efforts. And we anticipate all stakeholders to benefit from learning together; not only Immokalee residents desiring better nutrition, but also Rebecca, Misión Peniel, the UF/IFAS Family Nutrition Program and many other allies.

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