MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now to NPR's 100 Days Project and our correspondent David Greene. He's out talking to Americans about the economy during President Obama's first 100 days. So far, David has trekked from Michigan to Florida. The sunshine state has an unemployment rate around eight percent. In LaBelle, Florida, there are plenty of people who are not part of that statistic - they're working. But the recession still has forced them to make sacrifices. David gathered their stories at the 43rd Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival.
Mr. RICKY BASS: You'll beat your brains out with your tongue when you taste it.
DAVID GREENE: Ricky Bass is stirring a bubbling cauldron of thick brown goop.
(Soundbite of clanging)
GREENE: What's boiling there, he says, is the insides of a palm tree.
Mr. BASS: You skin the heart of it out, cut it up, mix a little bit of salt pork with it, onions, some Everglades season, you got swamp cabbage.
GREENE: So we're talking about just a regular palm tree that you see…
Mr. BASS: Yes, that tree right there. See that tree right there?
GREENE: Now, at fine restaurants, they'll serve chunks of this cabbage and call it hearts of palm. Round here it's been called swamp cabbage for years. At least back to the Depression when this vegetable helped Floridians survive.
(Soundbite of song, "Back in 5 minutes")
Mr. TIM SMITH (Singer, The Buckshot Band): (Singing) Well, I guess you can say I'm an average guy, calm and collected, not too shy.
GREENE: The Swamp Cabbage Festival is an annual tradition. The guy singing there, Tim Smith, performs every year with his group, The Buckshot Band. I asked him to tell me about this swath of south central Florida.
Mr. SMITH: The culture is mainly redneck. You know, to me, redneck is not a bad thing, what a lot of people think it is. Rednecks are people who are hard-working people. They go out and they do their - you know, bust their butts to do their job and then on weekends they go party.
GREENE: And when he's not belting out southern rock, Smith spends his days surveying land for construction projects.
Mr. SMITH: A couple years ago I pulled in between 250 or $300,000 for that one year. And it's just dropped down.
GREENE: Construction work has dropped off so much that Smith faces this new reality.
Mr. SMITH: Right now I'm making more money playing music than I am doing the land surveying thing.
GREENE: Just past the armadillo races - that's right, they race armadillos around here - and over by the kiddie rides, Shywona Williams is with her two-year-old daughter.
Ms. SHYWONA WILLIAMS #1: What's your name?
Ms. SIERRA WILLIAMS(ph) #2: Sierra.
Ms. WILLIAMS #1: Sierra what?
Ms. WILLIAMS #2: Sierra Williams.
Ms. WILLIAMS #1: Sierra Williams. Good job. What's mommy's name?
Ms. WILLIAMS #2: Mommy Williams.
Ms. WILLIAMS #1: Mommy Williams.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GREENE: Williams is 25. She works the night shift at Wal-Mart. And until recently, she had some big plans.
Ms. WILLIAMS #1: Right now I'm going to school. I want to teach. But they just made a bunch of cuts here in Hendry County at the school. They cut a lot of teachers. So, as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to stay at Wal-Mart until I can get a job teaching. Right now I don't think it's going to happen, and I'm happy at Wal-Mart.
GREENE: So, Shywona Williams is staying in that overnight cashier's job. This recession is forcing people to alter their plans or make some tough choices. When Shywona Williams told me about her long hours at Wal-Mart, I was reminded of another single mom I met earlier in the trip up in Lake City, Florida.
Kimberly Dortch lost her job as a manager at a restaurant. She could no longer afford her rent, so, she and her daughter, who's about to graduate from high school, are living 40 miles apart.
Ms. KIMBERLY DORTCH: I lost my home. So, I had to put her with friends, and I had to stay with friends. But in May, we're getting right back together, so, I should have everything together, so…
GREENE: What's happening in May?
Ms. DORTCH: I'm just saying - saving my money just to have a family again, you know, get our home back again.
GREENE: Saving money means working two new jobs, taking on longer hours, not as a manager, but waiting tables. I met her at a local diner.
Ms. DORTCH: I work at Applebee's and here. I work here Monday through Friday and Applebee's Thursday through Sunday, trying to make ends meet. And the tips aren't there anymore.
GREENE: But she and her co-workers are doing their best — including Janice Stockton who works back in the kitchen.
Ms. JANICE STOCKTON: Right now I'm doing what I can do to get by.
GREENE: Cooking omelets isn't the kind of work she's used to. For years, she was a state regulator. But then her office moved and the commute was too much. She thought it would be easy to find another state job. But that's not the way it's worked out. She said the transition from state government to working in a diner wasn't easy.
Ms. STOCKTON: It gives you a brand new appreciation for people who have these — who are in these positions. You know, it makes you realize just how important of a part we all play. Whether you're in the White House or in an outhouse or wherever you are, you play an important role in the operation of America. And it all takes everybody working together in order for us to pull our way out of this.
GREENE: Well, one thing's clear - Janice Stockton is doing her part. And so are Kimberly Dortch, Shywona Williams and Tim Smith. Like most of the people I've met on this long trip down I-75, they're concerned about the economy, and about their jobs and their ability to continue making a living. But they're hanging in there - waiting for that day when things start looking up.
I'm David Greene, NPR News.
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