Food bank network Feeding Florida estimates one in 10 Southwest Florida residents are experiencing food insecurity, with a large amount residing in Immokalee.
The Department of Agriculture classifies major portions of Immokalee, which has a 37% poverty rate, and surrounding areas as food deserts, defined as areas lacking access to affordable fruit, vegetables and other foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. With September being National Hunger Action Month, local organizations partnered to address food insecurity through promoting sustainable and healthy eating in Immokalee.
Misión Peniel farmworker ministry has been serving Immokalee since 2006. The organization seeks to achieve change in living and working conditions for local farmworkers. One of the many services of Misión Peniel is its food distribution efforts, serving about 400 food-insecure individuals each week.
Since 2017, the ministry has partnered with Cultivate Abundance, which works year-round with local partners to grow, collect and share nutritious foods.
“It’s an effort of collecting, growing and sharing what is locally grown between institutional partners and home gardeners,” Cultivate Abundance Outreach Manager Lupita Vazquez said. “We are continuing to help mitigate food insecurity, but also impact and reflect what we’re seeing in a community that people do on their own.”
Cultivate Abundance has distributed almost 150,000 pounds of grown food since 2018. With more than 100 different types of produce in Misión Peniel’s backyard, the organization focuses on distributing culturally relevant fruits and vegetables to Immokalee locals of various heritages, such as Guatemalan or Haitian.
“There’s so much local knowledge and knowledge of what people’s growing practices are or what they practice when they were in their home countries, and they’re doing it here, maybe in small amounts and in small, limited resources, but we’re seeing it,” Vazquez said. “That’s essentially what we tried to do here, is be intentional about how they see us reflected as well.”
On Sept. 17, which was National Hunger Action Day, Cultivate Abundance partnered with Blue Zones Project, the American Heart Association and SWFL Fresh to provide cooking demos for those who received distributed produce at Misión Peniel. The goal of the demos was to educate locals on how to utilize the fresh produce to turn it into a healthy meal.
Blue Zones Project has been working for almost a decade in the region to become a certified Blue Zones Project Community. The certification process is extensive with many benchmarks, and calls for collaboration within local government, nonprofits, restaurants, schools and more all being committed to making healthy choices easier for the entire community. One of Blue Zones Project’s efforts has been partnering with the SWFL American Heart Association’s Health for Life program, which focuses on interactive features, such as cooking demonstrations to learn how healthy food can positively impact someone’s daily life.
This partnership led to the creation of SWFL Fresh, a brand built through a grant from the USDA, which promotes local farmers and their work along with the health benefits of eating locally produced food.
Chef Arturo Aguirre is a Healthy for Life facilitator and represents SWFL Fresh through cooking demonstrations. His goal is to connect people with food they’re eating and reeducate the community on what it means to eat locally. In Immokalee, he took produce from Cultivate Abundance’s garden—jackfruit, green papaya and cranberry hibiscus—and made various salads and soups.
Andreali Moron Vasquez with the SWFL American Heart Association said food insecurity isn’t only about not having access to enough food. It also accounts for not having nutritious food, as low-quality meals can lead to chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.
“That’s what Healthy for Life wants to do. We want to create awareness about the importance of including more fruits and vegetables, about including more whole grains, reducing the amount of sugar that we were getting, and in that way, we can reduce and control chronic disease,” Vasquez said.
Addressing the entire issue of food insecurity can be an overwhelming task, but Megan Greer, executive director for the Blue Zones Project in Southwest Florida, said addressing local policies in schools and for future developments is a good step. She said local leaders should pay more attention to what quality of services are being fed into the community.
“I don’t think that people really want government-heavy everything, but when you look at land development codes, and what kind of businesses are coming in, not making the connection between how those businesses will benefit or be a detriment to the community members is a huge component of that,” Greer said.
Blue Zones Project and the American Heart Association with SWFL Fresh plan to hold monthly cooking and educational demos for those in Immokalee, along with demos at St. Matthew’s House. Greer, along with other local leaders who are pushing the initiative for sustainable eating, hope these events show the importance of eating healthy despite having scarce resources.
“Sometimes dieting becomes so overwhelming, and it’s so difficult, but if we can slow down and embrace the food that’s in our backyard that’s coming out of the ground, it can legitimately turn life around turn, chronic disease around,” Greer said. “It’s incredible when you see it.”