Thursday, March 3, 2011

Beth-El Farmworker Ministry

According to the USDA, in 2006 there were approximately 1 million hired farmworkers in the U.S.  Some work with livestock, some are migrant (traveling to work where crops are ripe), and some are seasonal (working only when the crops in their home location need tending). Farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.” (USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, 2008, pages 1 and iv.)

What an irony that those who povide food for America's tables are so often hungry themselves. To learn about hunger among farmworkers, we visited Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, Inc., in Wimauma, Florida, just south of Tampa. Beth-El is a Presbyterian mission, founded in 1976. It also has locations in Immokalee, Arcadia, and Fort Meade.

Javier Izaguirre
Beth-El Operations Manager
Our visit to Beth-El was hosted by Javier Izaguirre, once a farmworker himself, and now Operations Manager ensuring that all the programs at Beth-El run smoothly. Javier told us his story, and through him we learned of the many hardships faced by farmworkers, hardships such as:
  • Working very long hours in conditions that are often extremely hot, pesticide laden, physically taxing, and dangerous
  • Very low and uncertain wages, typically based on number of items picked
  • No health or dental care, limited or no workmen’s compensation, no paid vacation or sick leave
  • Discrimination, leading to limited advancement opportunities
  • Stress on families due to frequent moving or absence of a parent
  • Interrupted schooling for children
  • Substandard and crowded housing
  • Risk of wage theft
  • Reports of modern-day slavery
And for those farmworkers who are undocumented, the situation is much worse.  They live in fear of jail and deportation, they pay taxes such as Social Security that they can never recover, and many services available to other people living in poverty are unavailable to them. 
Cosmetology Class

Beth-El’s mission is to “help farm workers achieve self-sufficiency through its open opportunities to worship, its extensive educational programs, and the many services it provides to meet basic needs.” Its programs include 
  • Spanish-language worship services, Bible study, and vacation Bible school
  • A wide variety of adult education classes, such as English as a Second Language, General Educational Development degree (GED), Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), and Cosmetology
  • Pro-bono legal services
  • Caseworkers to help with housing 
  • Programs for children such as back to school preparation, field trips, and summer camp
  • Mission groups who work at the Mission or help restore housing
  • Addiction recovery programs such as AA
  • Food distribution
Also housed on the campus are Head Start program for children of migrant workers and a charter school for at-risk children operated by Redlands Christian Migrant Association

On Tuesdays from 9:00 to 2:00, Beth-El gives out food to those in the area that need it. Food is government surplus food (FEMA, TEFAP) obtained through the Cahill Food Bank, supplemented by other donations.

The day we helped, we arrived at 8:30. About 20 people were already in line.  Many volunteers were in the “bag room,” where large racks held hundreds of bags that had been partially filled last week. Each held dried pinto beans, rice, and some held 2-5 cans of fruit and vegetables or other items such as crackers, corn meal, and tortillas. We helped complete the bags by adding 2 quarts of shelf-stable milk. As we worked, other volunteers were filling small bags of popcorn and coconut from larger bags, so we added those, too.

Signing in

9:00 came, and the doors were opened. Those who hadn’t yet registered this year, gave their information to a volunteer, who qualified them based on residency and USDA income guidelines and gave them a blue laminated card. Everyone showed their blue card, signed in, received a chip, and exchanged it at the door to the bag room for their bag of groceries. Each person who received groceries also was given a large bottle of dish detergent (donated by Matthew 25: Ministries). 

Meanwhile, in the bag room, the prepared bags ran out and volunteers filling bags from scratch were barely able to keep up with the flow.

Who were the recipients of the food? We saw mostly relatively young Hispanic men and women, a great many with small children. We met a man asking if he could have meat and cereal, too, as he had nothing to feed his children. We met a woman raising her 7 grandchildren alone. We hope that these few staple items were a help to all the grateful folks who came.

All told, the crew of about 20 volunteers handed out close to 800 bags of food before the doors closed.

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