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Farmworker ministry doubles food distribution to meet demand during pandemic

Volunteers with Presbyterian Beth-El in Wimauma hand out as many as 900 bags per week.
Volunteers at Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma hand out donated food to immigrant farmworkers including Francisca García, center, mother of four children.
Volunteers at Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma hand out donated food to immigrant farmworkers including Francisca García, center, mother of four children. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Jul. 24, 2020

WIMAUMA — Francisca García gets up at 5 each morning to do the housework around her small apartment and to make breakfast and lunch for her four children before she heads out to her job in the fields.

She works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Sunday and struggles to get groceries. She has no car and the nearest store is eight miles away.

“Putting food on the table is not easy,” said García, 38, who is from Mexico. “Sometimes you don’t have enough money and sometimes you don’t have enough time.”

The struggle is greater during the coronavirus pandemic. She relies more now on charity.

“Many of us depend on any help, whenever and wherever it comes from.”

One place she counts on, the Presbyterian Beth-El Farmworker Ministry at 18240 U.S. 301 S, has been helping farmworkers in good times and bad for five decades.

Because of the health and economic devastation wrought by the pandemic since March, the ministry is working harder than ever to provide humanitarian aid.

“It was a strong change because many businesses and jobs for Hispanics were shut down,” said Teresita Matos-Post, 44, executive director.

More than 75 percent of Wimauma’s residents are Hispanic. Average annual income is $12,290 for women, according to the Census. That compares with $19,550 for men and $31,173 countywide. Nearly one in four people here live in poverty and 44 percent of the population 25 and older lacks a high school degree.

Many farmworkers come by bus directly from work for the free bags of food at the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry.
Many farmworkers come by bus directly from work for the free bags of food at the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Matos-Post coordinates the work of 25 volunteers, most of them students and missionaries. During the weekends, the group prepares bags of non-perishable food and keeps track of people who need help.

Before the pandemic, the group typically prepared 500 bags of food per week. Now, because of the pandemic, the number is 850 to 900 per week.

“We had to change the delivery and distribution model not only to prepare food bags in time but to distribute our food more effectively,” Matos-Post said.

The food comes from community organizations and social outreach groups. These include the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger and Presbyterian churches across Florida.

“We are always working to prepare a good bag of food for families and improve people’s diet,” said Sandra Monserrate, a volunteer for more than 11 years. “But there are challenges, such as making sure that we are protecting our people with masks, sanitizers and gloves.”

Food is distributed 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays.

Teresita Matos-Post serves as director of the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma, a program that has helped feed the needy for five decades.
Teresita Matos-Post serves as director of the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma, a program that has helped feed the needy for five decades. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

The ministry also takes part in a collective of organizations and community leaders helping needy people across Hillsborough County. They meet Wednesdays via Zoom.

“We meet virtually to continue to engage with the community over the long term and improve our services,” Matos-Post said.

One of the ministry’s partners in the Wimauma area is Meals on Wheels for Kids, launched in response to school closures for the pandemic. Children receive weekly deliveries of kid-friendly frozen meals, non-perishable groceries, and fresh produce. Other groups like the Redlands Christian Migrant Association distribute donated food to families on Mondays and Thursdays at school bus stops.

Edgardo Gómez, born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, said the food he receives from Beth-El helps him make ends meet.

Farmworker Edgardo Gómez said the bags of food from Beth-El Farmworker Ministry help him and his family make ends meet.
Farmworker Edgardo Gómez said the bags of food from Beth-El Farmworker Ministry help him and his family make ends meet. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Gómez, 35, has worked in the fields of Wimauma for seven years, supporting a family of four. They depend on public transportation but seldom leave home for fear of catching COVID-19. Hispanics account for a disproportionately large number of coronavirus patients in Florida and nationwide.

“It is a joy and a relief to receive this help,” Gómez said. “My family is happy because we are talking about milk, meat, bread and vegetables and they’re not cheap.”

From left to right: Brooke Tucker; Hannah Goff; and Hailey Tucker are part of a group of volunteers that works to provide goods to an estimated of 850 people.
From left to right: Brooke Tucker; Hannah Goff; and Hailey Tucker are part of a group of volunteers that works to provide goods to an estimated of 850 people. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

The volunteers at Beth-El wear masks and work in an assembly line. In seconds, they load each family vehicle with meat, canned goods, vegetables, rice, fruit and cookies for the children. They place bags directly into the vehicles to avoid contact with people.

Some of the volunteers come from outside Tampa.

Brooke Tucker, 38, and her daughter Hailen, a 15-year-old student, come from Palm Coast in Flagler County and plan to spend in Wimauma helping Beth-El.

“It is a pleasure to be here and do my best for all of these families,” Brooke Tucker said.

Added her daughter, “It is an experience of a lifetime.”

• • •

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