"Farmworkers are extremely food insecure. And they have been food insecure since before the pandemic."
“When people were worried about food supplies at the beginning of the pandemic, they began to think about who the people are who grow our food, process it, and deliver it to grocery stores. The widely publicized outbreaks at meatpacking plants and some farms pushed it further into people’s minds. The general public started wondering, ‘Well, who are these people and what are the conditions they're working in? Is there more we can do to support their health and wellbeing?’
Farmworkers were designated as “essential workers” during the COVID pandemic. And because of the outbreaks, the general public began to understand that a lot of the working conditions are outside of the control of the worker, meaning that the employer needs to be held accountable for providing a safe environment.
It's not just about the working conditions; it’s also about the wages. Due to their low wages, housing is often unaffordable, so they tend to live in substandard, crowded housing. And that, of course, has been one of many reasons why COVID has been so devastating in farmworker communities. It is hard to isolate and quarantine in those conditions. But farmworkers are reluctant to speak up and raise the alarm, for fear of losing wages and, depending on their documentation status, for fear of being reported to ICE or deported.
Approximately half of farmworkers are undocumented, which has a huge impact on their ability to assert their rights, their ability to access benefits like Medicaid and SNAP, and their comfort level in seeking other resources in their communities, like health care. For the most part, farmworkers are predominantly from communities of color, predominantly Latinx, and predominantly low wage. And they are being disproportionately impacted by COVID.
What's most ironic is that when people were rushing to grocery stores, worried that food would run out, the vast majority of the population didn’t know that farmworkers are food insecure, extremely food insecure. And they have been food insecure since before the pandemic. I think that is the cruelest irony of them all, that the people who harvest the fruits and vegetables that keep us healthy are struggling to feed themselves and their families.
Farmworker Justice and many other organizations have stepped in to provide resources to the farmworker communities, including connecting them with food banks, doing food drives, and supplying them with masks when the workers weren’t getting them from their employers. So many efforts have been happening, nationally, statewide, locally to get resources to communities.
COVID has made it easier for people to see that the challenges farmworkers face are embedded in social determinants of health, which are often impacted by policy. Due to this heightened recognition, Farmworker Justice’s partners in various states successfully pushed for emergency regulations to ensure safe COVID practices are followed in agricultural workplaces. There's no federal standard right now to protect workplaces during COVID. Hopefully that will change soon.
Thinking long term, beyond COVID, I am hopeful that the policies that have been enacted, the awareness that has been raised around the conditions of farmworkers, will translate into long-lasting change for farmworkers to ensure that they actually can work in a safe, healthy, and supportive environment. They are essential to our communities, just as they always have been, and they deserve to work and live with dignity.”
-- Alexis, Farmworker Justice (January 2021).