Last year, when Lipman and Pacific Tomato Growers teamed up for a backpack and school supply giveaway, the companies didn’t know what to expect.
“One of my colleagues bet me that we couldn’t give away all of the 700 backpacks we’d collected,” remembers Jamie Weisinger, the company’s director of community relations and a fourth-generation Lipman family member.
But when more than 1,000 needy kids showed up, many went home empty handed.
“Everyone felt bad,” said Weisinger.
This year, vowing to do better, Lipman along with several other agricultural producers, raised funds to purchase 1,400 backpacks stocked with basic school supplies.
It was a good thing they upped the number of backpacks. By 9 a.m. a dizzyingly deep line snaked around the Immokalee Sports Complex Field parking lot. The first families had arrived around 5 a.m., five hours before the giveaway started. Shielding themselves from the impending summer sun with umbrellas and hats, families waited and waited as the line grew behind them.
“We have about 1,600 (people) here now, but that’s families, including parents, so we should have enough backpacks,” said Weisinger hopefully, just moments before the giveaway began.
The way the process worked was like this: Only those in elementary and middle school were eligible for backpacks, and those students had to register. Once registration was complete, the student received a passport with a list of nearly 20 community agencies. The student then had to visit at least five agency’s booths, do a simple activity and then have their passport stamped before they could pick up their pack.
“We want people to be aware of all the services available to them,” said Weisinger, detailing why the event was set up to highlight community organizations.
From faith-based groups to education organizations like the Guadalupe Center and even the Imaginarium, children bounced from table to table checking off their passports. Once the fifth stamp was secured, kids rushed straight to the backpack pickup line.
“Being a single parent, it’s pretty hard buying school supplies,” said Claudia Rodriguez as she waited in the final line of the day with her three young children and two nieces. “There’s always just one too many items on the list. Shoes, khakis, shirts; it’s a lot.”
Rodriguez said that she’d arrived at the park around 7 a.m., but even then she’d worried about being close enough to the front of the line to get bags for her children.
“I know there were people here at 5 a.m.,” she said. “It was important for me for my kids to have school supplies to go to school with because I don’t want them to go to school without a backpack and see everybody else has a backpack. It’s important for me.”
Looking around the athletic fields where more than 1,000 other people were waiting around her, Rodriguez said that she was happy she came out to the event for another reason too — besides getting her children all set for school. “I think I realized today that there’s a lot of people in need, a lot more than I realized. I don’t feel so alone anymore.”
Which brought up the interesting irony of the event. Generous as it was that the tomato producers were supplying local children with backpacks, the tomato industry is often accused of paying extremely low wages. When asked whether these families would so badly need these backpacks if his company perhaps paid a slightly higher wage, Weisinger, however, insisted the wages weren’t the problem.
“The wage they’re paid is a fair wage, the problem is that there is a lot less work available,” he said. “All of the farming community, they realize that there are less farms here now than there has ever been. In the 1970s there were maybe 200 farms, now there’s maybe 30. There’s less work available.”
John Lawson, executive director of community group One by One Leadership, described how he reconciled the low wages of the industry with the generosity of the backpack event like this: “You have to take the fish that’s been given to us, and if there’s a bone in it, you spit it out.”
But no matter what was causing the need, the fact that it exists was more apparent than ever as families braved the almost triple-digit heat for their chance at a book bag. As Cynthia Ramirez’s daughter, Mercedes and nephew, Mark Lopez, finally got their bags, the two children took a quick look at the school supplies inside before turning back to Ramirez and asking the question on pretty much everyone’s mind: “Can we go to the pool now?”