Migrant workers among those experiencing food insecurity after Hurricane Ian

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Three weeks after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, some people are still finding it hard to feed themselves and obtain basic household supplies.

State agencies like the Florida Department of Emergency Management are shifting their response from offering immediate assistance, like food and water, to providing long-term recovery assistance as communities begin to stabilize.

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

“When there’s financial insecurity, it leads to food insecurity,” said Paulina Matias, the 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.

Paulina Matias, left, speaks with her colleagues Erika Pineros and Jose Perez in the office of Centro Juan Diego in Bonita Springs. (Melissa Feito/FPREN)

The need for food on a statewide level had already been high before the hurricane due to inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic, said Feeding Florida CEO Robin Safley.

Harry Chapin Food Bank, one of the network’s food banks and the largest hunger relief nonprofit in southwest Florida, 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 it to partner food pantries and charities that work directly with the public. 

Catholic Charities of Venice is one of the organizations that receive food from Harry Chapin. It has also received food from private donations, other Catholic organizations and companies like Walmart and Chick-fil-A. Eddie Gloria, CEO of Catholic Charities of Venice, estimates the organization has 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. Every household that has sought services there has received at least 75 pounds of food each. Matias said most people who go there are employed as low-wage service workers for local businesses, like restaurants and hotels, or as farm workers.

With many local businesses now struggling to recover, some in the community have missed out on wages, and others have lost their jobs entirely.

“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 the shelves at Centro Juan Diego’s food pantry, where volunteers pack them with bags of rice to hand out to the people lined up outside. Pallets of ready-to-eat meals and bottled water are stacked along the halls.

Pallets 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. (Melissa Feito/FPREN)

Centro Juan Diego feeds clients year-round. But after Ian, Matias said the need quadrupled. Part of the problem 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, Matias said.

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

In addition to living on very tight budgets, Matias said some more recent arrivals to the community, including many who come from Guatemala, have never experienced a hurricane and don’t know how to prepare for such a storm.

Though guidance on hurricane preparedness 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 of migrants often act as interpreters for their parents. He recalls how one of his second grade students had to read all the updates coming from the county to his parent because they didn’t understand English

That leaves people like Matias and others 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.

One client, who asked for anonymity, said she normally earns money by cooking for several families in the area. But she has lost those jobs.

The woman, who comes from Guatemala and lives in Bonita Springs, 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 pallets of food. But the resources once pouring into the center have slowed to a trickle.

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

But even that won’t stop the team, she said.

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

About Melissa Feito - FPREN

Melissa Feito is a multimedia producer for Florida Storms and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (FPREN). Reach her with questions, story ideas or feedback at mfeito2@ufl.edu.

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