Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City, Fla., is run by Jim Meeks, 70, and his extended family, including his daughter-in-law Xiamara Meeks, 36. Business is booming and the stand has been a mainstay of presidential campaign stops since the days of George H.W. Bush.
Founded in 1956, the Parkesdale Farm Market is the largest family-operated strawberry market in Florida.
Jim Meeks says the key to winning the election is drinking a Parkesdale strawberry milkshake. He plans to vote for Republican Mitt Romney and his daughter-in-law plans to vote for President Obama.
Plant City calls itself the winter strawberry capital of the world. A map in the seating area outside the market marks the far-flung hometowns of visitors.
The Meeks display a large photo of themselves posing with George and Barbara Bush in 1984. The market has become a "must-visit" destination for presidential candidates.
The market has grown from a simple fruit stand to a full-blown farmers market, open to the public seven days a week.
Candidate Obama visited the market in 2008 and took a photo with Xiomara Meeks' daughter, Piper.
Piper Meeks is now 4.
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As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition has begun a series of reports from an iconic American corner: First and Main. Several times in the next few months, we'll travel to a battleground state, then to a vital county in each state. In that county, we find a starting point for our visit: First and Main streets, the intersection of politics and real life.
In the swing state of Florida, in the political battleground of Hillsborough County, First and Main sits in a suburban Tampa trailer park. As you travel out from there, you find the county not only includes the city of Tampa, but also extensive farm regions.
One place you might have glimpsed on the news in the past is Plant City, which has become a stopping point for presidential candidates hunting for votes.
The Parkesdale Farm Market has been along this highway for many years. It has grown from a simple fruit stand to a full-blown farmers market, where you can get every kind of vegetable, depending on the season. Here, "where strawberries are king," the offerings include strawberry shortcake and strawberry milkshakes.
We sat down with Jim Meeks, whose family has run this place for decades.
"When people are hurting a little bit [and] they want to stretch the dollar, they come to places like mine," Meeks says.
They especially come for cheap food in the winter, which around here is strawberry-harvesting season.
Despite the financial crisis, Meeks says, his market has never made less than the year before.
A Swing-State Superhighway
Some customers want more than a milkshake.
Plant City spreads out along Interstate 4, which reaches northeastward across the heart of the Florida peninsula, from Hillsborough County through Orlando and beyond. You could think of it as a giant Main Street for central Florida.
Politicians know this populous highway corridor contains many swing voters.
"If they can get this corridor on their side, they've got it made," Meeks says. "Everybody admits that if you take the corridor, you take Florida."
Fast Facts: Hillsborough County
Source: RealtyTrac (http://www.realtytrac.com/trendcenter/), U.S. Census Bureau (2010 Census), Bureau of Labor Statistics
Credit: Alyson Hurt / NPR
Republican presidential candidate John McCain dropped by this fruit stand in 2008. On another day, Sarah Palin's bus pulled into the parking lot.
"[She] tried to come in, with her bus and everything, but there were so many people here, she ... could not get off the bus," Meeks recalls. "I gave her a milkshake — and the rest of the people on the bus. That's how busy it was."
He doesn't always get notice when politicians are stopping by.
"When Obama came here, I didn't get any," he says. "The guys come out here and they say, 'We want to bring somebody here in about 30 minutes,' and I said, 'You can bring anybody you want to here. We love to have people.' And I didn't know who it was until he walked in.
"I did make a milkshake [for] him, and I told him if he didn't drink it, he would not be elected. ... And he laughed and he said, 'Well, give me one.' "
Obama did win, though it was McCain who got Meeks' vote.
At the time, he said, there wasn't anything he particularly wanted to hear about from the candidates, but "now there is."
"I just think because I am an independent little-business guy, I think we're getting pushed around a little bit, you know," he says. "It seems like there's going to be a bunch of taxes and things [that are] going to affect us.
"From what I've heard — there's going to be some more regulations and more rules and more laws."
He says nothing has really changed yet, "but I have the feeling."
Health Care Uncertainty
We talked about this at a picnic table in an area decorated with red-and-green tinsel, in honor of Plant City strawberries.
Meeks says if President Obama drops by again this fall, he'd want to ask him about taxes and regulation. His daughter-in-law, Xiomara Meeks, says she'd like to ask either candidate, Obama or Republican Mitt Romney, about affordable health care.
Xiomara Meeks is part of Florida's growing Puerto Rican community. She's a geologist who now manages the books at this family business. Her 4-year-old daughter was born just in time for Obama to be photographed holding the baby in 2008.
As the manager of a family business, she is a fan of the president's health care law.
"As a business owner, we have our own personal insurance policy, and ... it's a lot of money every month, you know, and in order to afford it, we have such a high deductible," she says. "I'm lucky that I can afford it, but a lot of people can't.
"And I don't see the benefit of not helping other people to be able to afford their health insurance instead of running to the emergency [room], you know, and having all those bills go unpaid for the hospitals."
It was only recently that Jim and Xiomara Meeks got to thinking seriously about what the health care law means for them. They were prompted by this summer's Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law.
"We're really not sure exactly what's going to happen to us," Jim Meeks says.
As for the cost of subsidizing health insurance for others, he says: "How much they want from me?"
Businesses with more than 50 employees are supposed to offer health insurance plans or pay a fine. This small business, with fewer than 50 employees, should not be affected, though Jim Meeks doesn't quite believe that.
That's a consistent theme among conservative voters we met in Hillsborough County: They're less concerned with what the president has actually done these last four years than what they fear he might do.
"From what I know and what I feel, the ... 50 employees is just the beginning because there's an awful lot of companies that have 15, 20, 30 people. Eventually they're going to get them, too," Jim Meeks says. "They're going to get down there."
"That's the disagreement," Xiomara Meeks says. "I say that they won't and he says that they will."
Jim and Xiomara Meeks don't agree on how to vote.
She's for Obama. He's against the president — not excited about Romney, he says, though the Republican will get his vote.
Still, they don't disagree on every issue.
As we talked, both brought up migrant workers, many of them immigrants, who pick the strawberries around here.
"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be here. People don't understand that. If you live in a subdivision someplace, you don't understand that," Jim Meeks says. "If they were to kick all of [the immigrants] out, and we had to buy our food ... from Venezuela, Chile, Mexico — they would scream bloody murder at the prices that they would have to pay."
The migrant workers move to different states in different seasons. Sometimes they're in Florida, sometimes in Ohio.
And in that way, they resemble the presidential candidates who've come to the Parkesdale Market in the past, and who may well migrate here again for strawberry milkshakes this election season.