Health & Safety, Nutrition

Fieldworkers’ Nutrition Problem

From News.SantaCruz.com, Melody Parker, 9 Nov 2011.

Proximity to healthy food doesn't equal access to it. Photo courtesy Melody Parker.

Proximity to healthy food doesn't equal access to it. Photo courtesy Melody Parker.

Winter spells time off for field workers—and less money for food

Elia Fernandez walks cautiously to the middle of the room and glances at the exit sign before turning towards the 40 strangers awaiting her story. She stands behind the translator, Ann Lopez, and waits to be announced.

Fernandez is one of five field workers speaking at the Buena Vista Migrant Camp in Watsonville for a “Reality Tour” put on by Human Agenda, a human rights organization from San Jose.

“I’ve been working in the fields for 19 years,” she says to the room in Spanish. “My husband hurt his back in 2001. It’s been difficult to support the family since.”

She says that he needs an operation, but if it doesn’t go well he won’t be able to walk. Fernandez also has five children to feed. Her farmworker’s pay averages less than $13,000 a year and her husband is on disability. The whole family works hard, the children achieve 4.0’s in all their classes, she says, even though they have to change schools twice during the year because they are migrants.

In order to make ends meet, the Fernandez family takes advantage of many of the food distribution programs in Watsonville, a common practice for field workers. She cites Passion for Produce, a program started by Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County early last year. It has evolved into much more than a free fruit stand for farmworkers.

“The grant was directed towards farm workers, but also open to anyone with low income,” says Teresa Moran, Nutrition Programs Manager at Second Harvest.

Through the program, 11 sites in Santa Cruz County offer classes on nutrition and bags of produce twice a month (the classes are required to get the produce). The classes range from diabetes prevention to demonstrations on how to prepare enchiladas without oil—all geared to educate farmworkers and other attendees.

“The reason Passion for Produce is so unique is it’s a peer—–to–peer model—we recruit volunteers, even chefs from the community, lead them through the training so that they can lead the classes themselves,” says Brooke Johnson, Chief Operations and Program Officer at Second Harvest.

Like other food distributors in Watsonville, Moran, the nutritionist, notes that the need for food increases in the winter, when farmworkers are furloughed for the off-season, which runs roughly October through February. The need is particularly high for fresh produce.

“We know that farmworkers need produce because they will stand up in class to say, ‘Thank you so much for this,’” Moran says.

Maria Ronquillo, a nutritionist with Salud Para La Gente, agrees that the need is seasonally acute. “I have a lot of people tell me they run out of food during the winter months,” she says.

Salud Para La Gente, which means “Health for the People,” is a medical clinic in Santa Cruz and North Monterey counties that generally serves Spanish-speaking, low-income families. The clinic partners with Second Harvest to provide food for clients every Wednesday at its main office in Watsonville. Of these clients, 86 percent are farmworkers. That includes retired or disabled pickers.

“It’s really sad. It’s discouraging to pick food all day long for other peoples’ families and not be able to bring any home to your own,” says Johnson, the Food Bank’s COO.

Hungry For Substance
Not surprisingly, the condition of the farmworkers themselves fluctuates seasonally along with income, the coinciding physical work and the easy availability of good produce.

Dr. José A. Chibrás, chief medical officer at Salud Para La Gente, says that “during the winter months they gain weight, and the summer months they lose weight—undulating like a sine curve.”

Ronquillo, the clinic’s nutritionist, says the winter weight gain can be significant. “They gain weight easily, 10-20 pounds in the winter, since they eat foods with high fat and high sugar content, ” she says. She adds, “This is not about a lack of calories. It’s a lack of quality food.”

As nutritionists everywhere know, one of the cheap and easy fixes for people without much money to spend on nourishment is junk food. Dana Wagner, assistant director at the county’s Women, Infants and Children office, notes that in this respect farmworkers are typical.

“Families that work in the fields tend to be our poorest families,” Wagner says. “Like many poor in our country, the field workers will tend to eat convenient foods, fast foods, cheap foods.”

Dr. Chibrás points out a major difference, suspected but never confirmed, in the diets of Santa Cruz and Watsonville residents.

“Santa Cruz is completely different from Watsonville. Santa Cruz residents have more whole foods, and the amount of healthy food options may even be better than the rest of the U.S,” he says. “They cycle, walk, run, eat more fruits and vegetables. In Watsonville, when under financial strain, three hamburgers plus three kids equals $3, and in some corner markets, three apples plus three kids equals $3!”

In this case, poverty among field workers, paradoxically links obesity and hunger.

“The amount of obese people directly relates to the number of fast food establishments in the community. Just look at Freedom Boulevard,” Dr. Chibrás says. “In a poor environment, we eat like Eskimos, it’s feast or famine—put on fat to store for later. They may not have food the next day.”

Dr. Chibrás and Ronquillo agree on the common ailments of farm workers in regard to their diets.

“They have a high risk for obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. And it’s common to see in their children,” Ronquillo says.

Elia Fernandez’s mother and father in-law died last year. Both had diabetes and both worked in the fields until their fifties. Fortunately, the Fernandez children are healthy and do not have any problems to date.

Fernandez works hard in the fields and at home to provide nutritious food for her family. She stays up late during the week or spends weekends making potato tacos and bean and rice burritos for the week. Her combined kitchen/living room is virtually empty, with chairs lining the walls and a small yellow table with a large basket of fruit on top.

She is concerned about the meals being provided for free at her son’s school, Calabasas Elementary in Watsonville. She asks her son, Christian, to come out of the bedroom to talk about what food he gets at school. He walks out to the room without hesitation or objection and reports that they usually serve pizza, hamburgers and, on that day, corn dogs. They sometimes offer bananas or apples, he says, but not often. Fernandez has spoken to one of his teachers about the unhealthy food options but has not heard of any proposed changes.
Right now she hopes the food distribution programs continue running because, she says, “These services are important to me, they help my family very much.”

“It breaks my heart to see food insecurity among these people,” Ronquillo says. Even with these services, farm workers are struggling to afford fresh food for their families.”
Says Dr. Chibrás, “Watsonville has a diverse agricultural base of broccoli, artichokes, lettuce. It’s ironic that we have all this produce and the laborers in the industry can’t afford to buy it.”

Source: News.SantaCruz.com, “Fieldworkers’ Nutrition Problem” by Melody Parker, 9 Nov 2011.

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