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Migrant workers among those experiencing food insecurity after Hurricane Ian

Melissa Feito
Rows of ready-to-eat meals line the main hall of Centro Juan Diego in Bonita Springs. Food and supplies are distributed at the front of the building.

With three weeks having passed since Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, some are still finding it hard to feed themselves and obtain basic household supplies. State agencies like the Florida Department of Emergency Management is pivoting away from offering immediate assistance, like food and water, and towards long-term recovery assistance as communities begin to stabilize.

However, the need for those resources has not disappeared, especially amongst low-income residents who struggle year-round.

“When there’s financial insecurity, it leads to food insecurity,” said Paulina Matias, disaster recovery program director for Catholic Charities of Venice. The charity currently runs 10 distribution sites across Sarasota, Lee, Hardee, Desoto, Collier and Charlotte Counties.

Need for food on a statewide level has already been high due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent inflation, said Feeding Florida CEO Robin Safley. One if the network’s food banks, Harry Chapin Food Bank is the largest hunger relief organization in the Southwest. The food bank estimates one in eight people, including one in five children, in the region suffer from food insecurity. The food bank collects food and then distributes to partner food pantries and charities which work directly with the public.

Catholic Charities of Venice is one of those organizations that receives food from Harry Chapin. They’ve also received food from other Catholic organizations, companies like Walmart and Chick Fil A and of course, private donations. Eddie Gloria, CEO of Catholic Charities of Venice, estimates they have served tens of thousands of clients since Hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida.

Centro Juan Diego in Bonita Springs primarily serves the local community of migrant workers. Each household that has sought services here has received at least 75 pounds of food each. Matias said most people who come here work as low-wage service workers for local businesses, like restaurants and hotels, or as farmworkers. With many local businesses now struggling to recover, some in the community have missed out on wages and some have lost their jobs entirely.

Melissa Feito
Paulina Matias, left, speaks with her colleagues Erika Pineros and Jose Perez in the office of Centro Juan Diego.

“These are hardworking people,” Matias said “without them, who is going to clean the hotels? Who is going to harvest the fruits and vegetables?”

Light blue cans of black beans line Centro Juan Diego’s food pantry, where volunteers pack them away with bags of rice to hand out to the people lined up outside. The halls are lined with palettes of ready-to-eat meals and bottled water. Centro Juan Diego feeds clients year-round. But after Ian, she said, the need quadrupled.

Part of the problem, Matias said, is that it is nearly impossible for the people they serve to properly prepare for a hurricane. This makes their need after the storm all the greater.

“Individual preparation is very important, but we also know low-income families have a lack of resources,” she said.

On top of living on very tight budget, Matias said some more recently arrived members of the community, many from Guatemala, have never experienced a hurricane and aren’t familiar with the standard steps of preparing for a storm. Though guidance on hurricane preparations from the state and local government may be available in Spanish in addition to English, many of these people only speak Q’anjob’al, an indigenous language. Some may not even be able to read and write.

Jose Perez, who leads the youth development program, said first generation children often act as interpreters for their parents. He recalls one of his students who was in second grade, who had to read his parents all the updates coming from the county because his parents didn’t understand English

That leaves people like Matias and others here to fill in the blanks.

“I always tell them to take a few extra cans [from the food pantry] and put them in a closet somewhere,” Matias said.

Melissa Feito
Volunteers, wearing the green vests, assist those who come to the center seeking food, water and supplies. A representative from Chick-Fil-A unpacks hot sandwiches donated by the restaurant chain.

One client coming to the center for help, who asked to speak anonymously, said she comes from Guatemala and lives in Bonita Springs. She normally earns money by cooking for several different families in the area. Currently, she’s lost those jobs.

She said her children are afraid that the hurricane will come back. She’s afraid she won’t be able to feed them.

“We are already hearing… ‘I need help with rent, I was out of work for a week or more.’ The long-term needs of our clients are already showing up,” said Matias.

Immediately after Ian the center received 98 palettes of food. They've already given away much of it. Eventually the resources pouring into the center will turn into a trickle.

“We will be open until we no longer receive the resources. It could be weeks, or it could be months,” Matias said.

However, even that won’t stop the team here.

“We’re here for the long term. We will continue to be here after everyone else leaves.”