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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Food Dumping in a Food Desert: Irony in Florida’s Tomato Capitol

Friday, June 12

Friday afternoon, June 12, was scorching hot in Immokalee, Florida.

Practicing social distancing, we were sharing food with a few hundred residents in the parking lot of Misión Peniel – a food pantry ministry supported by Southwest Florida PC(USA) congregations. Off to the side, a few staff from Doctors Without Borders were passing out COVID-19 information in Haitian Creole and Spanish.

The heat had barely eased by the time we wrapped things up around 6:30 p.m., ending another week of activity. For Cultivate Abundance, a nonprofit established in late 2017 to address food insecurity in Immokalee’s food deserts (e.g., low-income communities where healthy and affordable food aren’t readily available), this was the 12th consecutive Friday of helping Misión Peniel share food since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking advantage of a local climate that is well suited for tropical crops, Cultivate Abundance grows, collects, and shares nutritious, locally grown food of cultural preference for Immokalee’s Guatemalan, Mexican and Haitian residents. Besides tending a community garden at Misión Peniel, we partner with other nonprofits and churches as well as home gardeners in a movement of food solidarity, sharing food with the farmworker community each Friday at Misión Peniel.

In 2019 our small network of gardeners sourced a little over 6,000 lbs. of fresh fruit, vegetables, and eggs. However, the 2020 COVID-19 food crisis forced us to accelerate efforts, resulting in over three tons of produce shared between March and June.

During that hot afternoon of June 12, in addition to hundreds of pounds of locally grown jackfruit, mangoes, banana, watermelon, greens, cowpeas and lettuce, Misión Peniel was experimenting with boxes of groceries donated by a regional food bank. Each bulky box contained the same contents; a large bag of either cooked chicken or pork, a package of cheese and small cartons of two percent milk as well as apples, oranges, and a bag of celery.

Cultivate Abundance cannot grow and source all the food needed by Immokalee residents. Rice, beans, and bread must be brought in. Therefore, Misión Peniel depends upon nearby food banks for staples and other groceries, including canned goods, packages of macaroni and cheese, certain types of fruit and vegetables, bread, snacks, and occasional offerings of frozen meat. Of mixed quality, even with food sometimes nearing expiration, the food bank products are generally appreciated by our Immokalee neighbors.

The food boxes we shared that day were provided by the USDA’s Farmers to Family Food Box program.

The Farmers to Family Food Program

According to Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, this initiative was designed to put American farmers and distributors back to work while supporting “over-burdened food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.”

When launched in May, the program’s objective was to help farmers, ranchers, and consumers by purchasing up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products. This tossed an economic lifeline to large farms in Florida and elsewhere. Originally intended to operate through June 30, 2020, the initiative has been extended through August 30.

In the Misión Peniel context, the boxes quickly proved to be problematic. Estimated to weigh around 20 lbs., these large cartons are designed to be dropped into the trunk of automobiles at drive-through food distribution sites. However, the majority of Misión Peniel clients arrive on foot or bicycle.

Many come equipped with baby carriages or small carts. On this Friday, our clients struggled to carry the food boxes along with bags of regular groceries, although a few of the Haitian ladies balanced boxes on top of their heads.

Strangely, on that day, we noticed a surge of clients arriving in cars.

Abandoned food?

Around 6:00 p.m. as food and clients were dwindling, I began to put away our outdoor equipment, including rolls of construction fencing used to direct our clients towards designated entrances and exits. In a spot obscured by a storage trailer, I came across two of the food boxes that had been discarded on the edge of the street. I assumed that they were empty, jettisoned by our clients as they prepared to walk home.

To my surprise, I found that they still contained meat, cheese, and milk. As the milk was still cool and unopened, I carried the cartons back to the building and reported what I had found.

When I returned to my task, I found even more boxes piled around the trash can of the neighboring hair salon. Already exhausted, I dreaded removing and flattening those boxes.

What I found in those cartons was a kick to the gut. Each contained more milk, meat, cheese, and other rejected food.

How could this be? Why would there be such blatant food waste in a food desert? We had never seen anything like this before.

Food Dumping is a Thing

Comparing notes, Pastor Miguel, Director of Misión Peniel, mentioned that with the worsening economy, food banks and pantries had begun distributing large quantities of these food boxes in Immokalee and nearby. He also noticed that other local agencies, which previously did not handle food, were also handing out large volumes of these boxes three or four days of the week.

He also observed discarded boxes all over town.

Such food box largess mobilized a slightly more affluent segment of Immokalee; low income, permanent residents with access to automobiles. With a sudden flood of free food, some had begun making rounds to receive a daily box.

To understand this situation, we should consider the three food system ironies that afflict Immokalee:

  • Irony one: The fact that food deserts exist in a town in the middle of a region that produces so much of America’s food.

  • Irony two: The rapid breakdown in the US food system due to the coronavirus-related closure of hotels, restaurants, and other food service industries resulted in a massive loss of produce sales for Immokalee’s large farms and packing houses. Beginning in March, acres of crops, including tomatoes and cucumbers, were plowed under with the harvested surplus dumped in piles for cattle to eat.

  • Irony three: The Immokalee food desert became the target of a food dump. The most classic form of food dumping is when an excessive amount of food aid is provided to developing countries. The American government is infamous for dumping surplus food, usually grain purchased from large US farms, on very low-income countries such as Haiti. Although intended to be a win-win for farmers and hungry people, such a flood of commodities is disruptive to local farming economies.

So, what would be the impact of food dumping in an American food desert, such as Immokalee?

Although the Farmers to Family program is intended to assist America’s agricultural industry, as we are currently not in production season, we have found no evidence that the USDA food box program is either helping or hurting Immokalee’s farm economy.

However, the recent food dumping is proof that there can be too much of a good thing.

In terms of the type and quantity of food being shared, the large USDA boxes are designed for the “typical” American consumer whose household economy has been affected by the COVID-19 recession. It is also assumed that the cartons would be retrieved by car. Theoretically, this food would help sustain a household for days, with extra veggies, dairy and meat safely stored in the refrigerator.

Again, the typical Immokalee farmworker has no car. And even for anyone with a vehicle, this type of food doesn’t square with the cultural diet preferences of many Immokalee residents, hence the abandoned dairy products and other food.

Refrigeration and freezing can also be an issue in Immokalee as many rental trailers are not equipped with functioning appliances. And you can handle only so much donated meat.

This is why I was picking up abandoned food on June 12 in front of Misión Peniel.

Friday, June 19 – The best-laid plans…

Miguel announced that we were done with the food boxes. Instead, we were going to focus on our core farmworker clientele; those who mainly come by foot. We would also lean on our regular offerings of nutritious, culturally appropriate, locally grown food sourced by Cultivate Abundance and partner gardeners, as well as the regular food bank commodities.

As we prepared to share food on the afternoon of Friday, June 19 – another sweltering day – we were going to be vigilant against food waste. And, as has been the case each week, we would also maintain socially distanced order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 that continued to surge in Immokalee.

But no one saw the local nonprofit delivery truck drive up in front of Misión Peniel until it was too late. Arriving just as we were preparing to open, the mobile nonprofit staff began tossing food boxes out of the back of the truck to a growing swarm of people who, seconds before, had been lining up according to directions.

Our team rushed out to the truck and instructed the driver and staff, in no uncertain terms, to leave immediately. We told them that they had disrupted our social distancing and that their food was being wasted.

The truck finally drove away, leaving us to demand that those who had grabbed up boxes to immediately leave along with the cartons and contents.

Instead, the recipients – probably none being farmworkers – ignored us and began to break open the boxes. They extracted only the food that they wanted, leaving everything else behind for us to clean up.

Food solidarity is not food dumping

It took an hour to restore order and to clean up.

The USDA food box experience was yet another reminder that America’s food system is broken. Over the short-term, there is not much we can do to reform a food system beset with excess and inequity.

Our response is participation in food solidarity efforts that benefit the farmworker community of Southwest Florida. This is how to get involved:

  • Learn where your food comes from and determine the effect that associated food systems have on the environment as well as on those who grow, harvest, and process food in addition to ourselves as consumers.

  • We can advocate for food justice, particularly for fair pay and humane work conditions for those growing and harvesting food and provide support to organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their Campaign for Fair Food.

  • If you live in Southwest Florida, in partnership with Cultivate Abundance, consider how you, your church or organization might grow and share food that benefits farmworker households.

  • Again, if you’re local, after COVID-19 has eventually run its course, you might assist Misión Peniel’s efforts to distribute meals in Immokalee. You can also donate towards the mission’s food purchase efforts. Or you can volunteer in the Misión Peniel garden.

  • And no matter where you live, you can support the work of Cultivate Abundance to promote household and community gardening in Southwest Florida that directly benefits Immokalee families.

Let’s engage in food justice, not wasteful charity.

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