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On farmworkers, fresh fruits and food insecurity

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Special to the Daily Californian

JULY 13, 2023

California produces nearly half of the United States’ fruits, vegetables and nuts. The majority of these crops, such as strawberries, oranges and cauliflower, must be picked by hand.

The farmworkers who maintain and harvest these essential American crops — although enduring extremely poor working conditions — are often unable to afford the produce themselves. Additionally, due to structural environmental, social and institutional inequalities, they face exacerbated levels of food insecurity which consequently affects their health and well-being. 

Migrant laborers are farmworkers who come from countries outside of the United States, especially Mexico, to pick fruits and vegetables on American farms, many of which are located on the Pacific Coast. 

Mexican farmworkers have worked seasonally in the United States since the signing of the Bracero program, which allowed Mexican men to sign short-term labor contracts with American farms. Decades later, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) drastically disrupted the Mexican agricultural trade economy, forcing Mexican farmworkers to work on American farmland. U.S. policy and agricultural practices, however, force these migrant workers into food-insecure situations. 

Migrant farmworker incomes are beyond subpar: 30% of farmworker families earn annual incomes below the federal poverty line. This income is insufficient to provide themselves and their families nutritionally adequate food. 

While their income bracket qualifies them for food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), their immigrant or undocumented status makes them ineligible and ostracized from applying to federal nutritional assistance programs; farmworkers find themselves ineligible to consume the produce they pick. Moreover, food banks and community service partnerships are rarely located near rural farmworker communities, and with a lack of accessible transportation, these resources are out of reach. 

Migrant farmworkers, therefore, are forced to purchase food in economic alignment with their income. Food options that fit this description, however, are heavily processed – such as the food found at convenience and drug stores with high amounts of sodium, saturated fats and other processed ingredients. Continuous consumption of these products leads to devastating health complications: heart disease, diabetes and higher rates of mental health disorders. 

In addition to a lack of healthy food options, farmworkers are rarely allowed breaks, especially paid breaks. Federally, farmworkers that pick/harvest food are not legally considered “skilled workers.”

For farmworkers compensated by the quantity of crop they pick, taking breaks would subsequently reduce their income. In the hot summer months, having limited nutrition in a physically demanding role can take its toll. Consequently, this lack of federal regulation results in adverse health outcomes on the laborers who put food on American tables. 

The income provided to farmworkers and oppressive legislative state and federal systems not only undermines the importance of their work, but also disqualifies them from accessing healthy produce, forcing them to choose between processed and unhealthy food options or not eating at all. 

At the issue’s core, the blame can be attributed to the American political system, but the employers and individuals who indirectly benefit from the farmworkers’ low-paying work are often partially responsible for taking action. The signing of NAFTA without considering potential adverse environmental health and safety consequences has led to poor outcomes for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. 

To address food insecurity, SNAP and other food assistant programs must be expanded to include all migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including undocumented farmworkers. In addition to a comprehensive federal reform bill acknowledging farmworkers as skilled employees, farmworkers must be compensated much further beyond the federal poverty line. 

Enforcing that employers contract paid lunch breaks will consequently contribute to reducing the health concerns associated with a lack of break time. State governments can also seek to enroll farmworkers in nutritional assistance programs and ensure their farmworkers’ employers are held accountable for their safety and well-being. 

To provide community support, food banks and community services that are currently inaccessible to farmworkers must seek means to meet the needs of these laborers, such as implementing transportation services to farmworker communities. 

On a personal level, the first step is educating yourself further: take the time to develop your own perspective and framework for understanding the complexity of farmworker health issues. Next, support politicians who advocate for farmworker health issues locally, state-wide and nationally, and advocate for the issues led by farmworker organizations such as the Migrant Clinicians Network or Farmworker Justice. 

Taking personal responsibility in supporting those who provide the food for the U.S. may create a sense of pride and purpose, and perhaps push your thoughts, energy and intentions further. While these modifications to federal, state, community and individual principals will not extricate migrant farmworkers from their difficult journey to and experience within the western United States, they will give farmworkers the financial, food and health security and respect that they deserve, and adhere to modern principles of environmental justice and health equity.

Benji Persons is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley interested in sustainable community health practices and environmental equity and justice. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 13, 2023