Kimora “Kimmie” Lynum, age 9, passed away two weeks ago from the novel coronavirus. She was the youngest person to die in Florida, where negligent public officials and lax public attitudes toward the virus have catapulted the Sunshine State into first place ahead of New York and California for the highest number of confirmed infections as of July 30th – 461,379 (7/30). Florida’s death toll stands at 6,586.
Kimmie was described in the state’s media as “jovial, fun-loving, and free-spirited; sociable, inquisitive, and always happy.” Tragically, she was a victim of a pandemic that is proving increasingly indifferent to age, but whose spread is aided and abetted by thoughtless politicians. It is also worth knowing that Kimmie is Black, and that she and her family live in Putnam County, Florida. By now it is almost universally acknowledged, at least among those who believe the South will not rise again, that people of color get less of the good things like education and health care, and more of the bad things, like hunger and higher mortality rates. In Putnam County, where 17 percent of the population is Black, 27 percent of the diagnosed COVID-19 infections are among Black people. But as we learn more everyday about how place matters, we find that location, zip codes, and even the block where we live determine who gets the good things and who gets the bad things. And if local health and poverty statistics are part of your selection criteria when searching for a place to live, in all likelihood, Putnam County will not be on your list.
I first became aware of the county—located southwest of Jacksonville and west of St. Augustine—when I was researching my recent book Foodtown, USA. As I was interviewing people associated with food and health programs in Florida’s northeast region, several of them suggested that I visit Putnam. They offered two reasons: it had earned the dubious distinction of being selected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as the Florida county with the worst health outcomes—67th out of 67 counties (2016)—and it also has a $750 million agricultural industry that produces potatoes, cabbage, corn, and broccoli for America’s winter market. Seeing poverty and a community’s degraded health status cozied up next to vast reservoirs of agricultural abundance may be no surprise to food justice advocates, but it still remains one of those food system conundrums that drives most of us mad.
Running counter to such long standing injustices, I found Angela TenBroeck, a farmer with a mission. She is determined—come hell, Florida’s high waters, or COVID-19—to bring healthy, affordable food to everyone in her region. Working over the past several years to adapt innovative agricultural technology to Jacksonville’s urban spaces, she’s located a state-of-the-art aquaculture and hydroponic farm in rural Putnam County. “We’re in the poorest place in Florida,” she tells me, “and you have to drive at least 10 miles from my [Putnam] farm to get to the nearest supermarket.” Angela hopes to remedy part of that problem with her Marine Land Aquaponics farm that is scheduled to come on line in mid-August. With 25,000 square feet of year-around hydroponic produce production and a 7,000-square foot aquaculture system raising striped bass, she already has forward contracts with local school districts to buy her farm’s output.
So, you would think that a county whose primary distinction is coming in dead last in the Robert Wood Johnson “award” for health would be celebrating ventures like Angela’s with a marching band. Unfortunately, Marine Land Aquaponics, which actually did win an award—a $20,000 Guide Well Innovation grant to eliminate food insecurity—was turned down by the County’s commissioners when she asked them to support a $5 million loan request to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The loan would have increased Angela’s operation four-fold, swelled her workforce from its current level of 10 to 50, and grown healthy food at a scale that would make a huge difference in the health status of area residents. According to Angela, one county commissioner told her, “you sound a little green,” green being the new red if you remember the Communist witch hunt days of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
As Angela sees it, “COVID has changed everything. Imported food is not coming in like it used to, which means we’ll be moving to more local food.” But even the most zealous advocates for greater local self-reliance acknowledge healthy food must go hand-in-hand with a prosperous community and an equitable health care system. Laureen Husband, a founding member of the First Coast Food Network and a former Florida Health Department official, points out how Florida’s political leaders have been complicit in downsizing the state’s public health system, which has been a main factor in the rising COVID-19 body count. “So many people in Florida died who did not have to die,” Laureen told me. “If the state had done things right in April [kept beaches and restaurants closed; mandated the wearing of face masks], we wouldn’t be in this mess now.” She noted that Wal-Mart has had the good sense to require all customers to wear masks, and even hands them out at the entrances to their Florida stores. Matters are not helped, however, when virus testing, which Laureen has volunteered to assist with in her Jacksonville community, is not performed adequately. “It often takes two to three weeks before people receive their test results, and even then, all they’ll get is a text message with no information about what to do if they’ve tested positive.”
Putnam County has paid dearly for the State of Florida’s longtime neglect. The lack of investment in its health system infrastructure has placed its 74,000 residents at additional risk, and a lack of diversification in its economy has contributed to its high poverty rate. According to the county’s Palatka Daily News, agriculture represents 38 percent of Putnam’s “gross regional product,” which includes 20,000 acres of potatoes (combined acreage for Putnam and neighboring St. Johns and Flagler counties) produced for Frito-Lay and other potato chip makers. While that may be a badge of honor for the region’s 40 large potato growers, it’s done little to extricate the wider community from the swamp of poverty and substandard health outcomes.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson data (2020), Putnam County’s childhood poverty rate is 33 percent compared to Florida’s 20 percent rate (Florida’s socio-economic and health indicators generally lag behind national averages); 25 percent are in poor or fair health (17 percent for Florida); the adult obesity rate is 39 percent (27 percent for Florida); and there is one primary care physician for every 2,300 residents (Florida is one to 1,380). Where the county equals Florida as a whole, of course, is in the number of uninsured people—about 17 percent. That’s because the state’s political leadership has declined to participate in Medicaid expansion. The national uninsured rate runs around 8 percent.
In one of those ironies that becomes less ironic the more you know about America’s inequalities, Putnam County shares its eastern border with Florida’s wealthiest county—St. Johns, home to the city of St. Augustine. Looking at the RWJ’s figures, it would be hard to find two places so close together, yet so far apart. Even though the population of St. Johns County is 3.5 times larger than Putnam’s, St. Johns coronavirus infections are just 2.75 times more than Putnam’s, and the number of deaths (23) is only half again as great as Putnam’s (15). This is not surprising when you see that St. Johns childhood poverty rate is only 7 percent (33 percent in Putnam) and there is one primary care physician for every 1,050 people (1:2,300 in Putnam). Even when a pandemic is ravaging the same region, even when the hurricanes wash over the same places, even when the same bad state policies and practices govern the same two counties, wealth and whiteness will enable you to weather the storm far better than your poorer and darker neighbors.
It was against this socio-economic and racial backdrop that Kimmie went to the hospital on July 11th complaining of stomach pains and fever. Her examination did not include a test for COVID-19. She was given some Tylenol and a couple of shots and sent home. Six days later she was found unresponsive and efforts to resuscitate her failed. Posthumous tests found she was COVID positive.
According to a family spokesperson, Dejeon Cain, Kimmie was a happy child, but she didn’t even get a chance to live her life. Not only did the medical system fail Kimmie, the social, economic, and political circumstances of her county and state failed her as well. Her chances in life were never as good as a young white girl in next door St. Johns; she never had the same odds as children in places where inspired leaders and social entrepreneurs take thoughtful risks to ensure a prosperous and green future for their citizens; she would always need far greater luck than her privileged peers to live a happy, healthy, and successful life. Let’s direct our outrage at those who must be held accountable, and let’s renew our commitment to building a future where equity and health are a fact of life for all.