After leaving three children in Guatemala, Maria Vasquez spent 15 years working in the agricultural industry in Immokalee, Florida. She worked in the fields for three years picking jalapeños, watermelons, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, and pumpkins before spending 12 years processing tomatoes in a warehouse.
Although Vasquez handled food every day for work, she couldn’t afford to buy groceries. Instead, she began exchanging food with friends and learning about Immokalee’s community-based resources through word of mouth.
Immokalee is known as the tomato capital of the United States, yet 28 percent of the town’s 24,500 residents—the majority migrant farmworkers from Central America, Mexico, and Haiti—live below the federal poverty line and without easy access to healthy foods. This poverty rate is more than double the statewide average, and it’s compounded by higher-than-average food prices, a housing crisis, and minimal public transportation options.
To face these challenges, Vasquez connected with local organizations committed to mutual aid and self-reliance. She began attending meal distribution events at Misión Peniel, a ministry of Peace River Presbytery that supports the Immokalee farmworker community, and joined the mission’s women’s group to build connections.
When she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome in 2015, she gave up the demanding hours of agricultural work to care for him and began providing cleaning services for the mission. She volunteered at the community garden behind the building run by Cultivate Abundance, an organization that addresses food insecurity and livelihood challenges in low-income, migrant farmworker communities, until the group hired her on as a garden aid.
Like Vasquez, many in this tight-knit community have found strategies for collaborative resilience as the pandemic and Hurricane Ian have made food access even more challenging in recent years.
A combination of informal mutual aid networks, small-scale farms, foraging, and donated meals from local organizations such as Misión Peniel and Meals of Hope keep the community nourished. Additionally, Cultivate Abundance is growing crops such as amaranth, Haitian basket vine, and chaya (a nutritious shrub native to the Yucatan peninsula) to move beyond charity and equip community members with culturally relevant, locally recognized produce.
These efforts not only bolster food security, but they also support the community’s autonomy to grow their own food and engage in collective healing. While many Immokalee residents report that they practice grueling labor each day and have experienced xenophobia, sexual violence, and rent gouging in their recent pasts, the garden behind Misión Peniel offers a safe space for community members to speak their own languages, share memories from their home countries, practice meditation, and return to their ancestral cultural knowledge to grow their own food as stewards of the land.
Food and Housing Insecurity in Immokalee
Immokalee’s Main Street boasts a few blocks of small markets featuring products from the community’s predominant Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian diasporas, as well as money-transfer services for migrants to send money home. Old school buses transporting farmworkers to work pull into the parking lot of La Fiesta supermarket, a key intersection in town bordering on the land owned and occupied by Misión Peniel and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a high-profile farmworker advocacy group.
Here, wild chickens cluck at all hours of the day, their chorus mixing with broadcasting from Radio Conciencia 107.7, the CIW’s community radio station. Green space is scarce, and beyond the town’s center, sidewalks fade into neighborhoods of run-down trailers and busy roads lined with fast food restaurants.
Though Immokalee sits just 30 miles from Naples, one of the wealthiest cities in Florida, wages remain a primary barrier to residents’ adequate food access. The most recent Census found an average per-capita annual income of $16,380 in Immokalee between 2017-2021. Nearly 39 percent of the town’s population was born outside of the U.S., and the number of farmworkers varies based on the season; some sources estimate that as many as 15,000–20,000 migrant seasonal farmworkers typically live in the area.
In the winter months, the majority of those workers are there to pick tomatoes. From 1980 to 2009, farmworkers received 50 cents per bucket picked rather than a guaranteed minimum wage, meaning they had to harvest at least 150 buckets per day to make enough income.
CIW’s Fair Food Program, which began in 2010 to create a fairer food industry for workers, farmers, buyers, and consumers, improved those conditions. The program is known nationally as a model for providing farmworkers with human rights, and requiring that growers selling to participating buyers (such as McDonalds, Walmart, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s) clock workers’ time and pay them minimum wage (currently $11 per hour in Florida), as required by federal law. Participating buyers also agree to pay at least a penny more per pound of tomatoes they buy, translating to a bonus that gets split among qualifying workers.
However, not all buyers participate in the Fair Food Program. The CIW continues to advocate for a consumer boycott of Publix, Kroger, and Wendy’s, which have all refused to join. Julia Perkins, education coordinator for the CIW, says even with these gains, many workers struggle to feed themselves. Agricultural work is inconsistent, and an individual’s income will vary greatly by season.
“When there is a lot of picking to be done, when it’s not raining a lot, [if] it’s the first pick, you can do pretty well for a number of weeks,” Perkins says. “[But] not well enough to feed you for the rest of the year.”
The pandemic exacerbated farmworkers’ struggle for adequate income. The market for wholesale crops declined because industries like cruises, hotels, and restaurants shut down, lowering the prices of commodities and increasing grocery store prices.
Farmworkers experienced the brunt of the economic downturn—lower demand for the crops they picked meant fewer jobs, and inflation limited their wages’ reach. If farmworkers fell sick with the virus and couldn’t go to work, they received no pay, and as they remained essential workers, they couldn’t shelter in place.
Furthermore, many Immokalee residents are undocumented, meaning they didn’t qualify for federal stimulus checks under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), nor have they received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to help them purchase food.
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Author: Julia Knoerr