What Does Food Justice Mean for Farmworkers?

Gail Wadsworth | 01.15.2014

According to a 2007 California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) study of farmworker food security in Fresno County, 45 percent of the workers in the most productive agricultural county in the US are food insecure. Another CIRS study in the Salinas Valley—America’s Salad Bowl—found that 66 percent of workers interviewed were food insecure. What do these staggering levels of food insecurity among those who plant, cultivate and harvest our food mean for the food justice movement and for rural development policy? In order to effectively promote food justice in rural areas, we need to understand the challenges faced by farmworker communities.

The majority of California’s farmworkers live in private housing in both cities and in unincorporated rural regions. Workers living in agricultural regions of California often go home to substandard living conditions. Wherever they choose to live, about half of farmworker households are considered “crowded” by US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards [1. HUD defines “crowded” as more than one person living per room.] —this is ten times the national average. [2. http://www.hud.gov/groups/farmwkercolonia.cfm] In addition, housing in rural areas frequently lacks amenities most of us take for granted such as electricity, potable water and waste disposal.

What do the staggering levels of food insecurity among those who plant, cultivate and harvest our food mean for the food justice movement and for rural development policy?

In unincorporated agricultural parts of the state, residents also often live in unsafe neighborhoods lacking paved roads, sidewalks, parks, healthcare facilities, emergency services, schools and grocery stores. Because of the lack of public transportation, workers living in remote regions find themselves isolated and unable to get to places where they can purchase healthy foods. Farmworkers own cars at low rates (39%) meaning that they must often ride with others, subject to high and inconsistent charges, dangerous driving, and unreliable and unsafe vehicles. [3. http://www.agworkerhealth.org/RTF1.cfm?pagename=Transportation] This lack of mobility is severe in many locations, preventing farmworker families from accessing food.

In addition to the issue of physical access to food as a result of lack of mobility and grocery stores, farmworkers also lack economic access to food. American households spend an average of $151 per week on food, or about 6 percent of their income. A farmworker’s annual salary is around $13,800 on average. If we multiply the average cost Americans spend by 52 weeks that equals a cost for food of $7,952 a year or 58 percent of a farmworker’s annual income. This leaves only $5,948 for all other expenses, which generally means that farmworkers will spend well below the average American household on food. Of course, this rough calculation does not take into account other household sources of income for farmworkers, many of whom live in multi-family and multi-generational households. The National Agricultural Workers Survey found that, between 2007 and 2009, families earned an average of $17,500 to $19,999. [4. US Department of Labor. National Agriculture Workers Survey. United States. Department of Labor. 2010. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2007-2009] Still, by all measures farmworkers are low-wage workers with little economic power.

Farmworkers make very low wages and work seasonally. In addition, labor laws exclude agricultural workers from many of the protections that most employees expect. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country and yet workers are expected to work ten-hour days, sometimes with their children working alongside them. As explained above, farmworkers may also live in substandard housing and struggle to feed their families. Many now live in urban areas and commute to work, but others live in isolated rural communities. In the Eastern Coachella Valley, for instance, the economy mainly consists of a seasonal tourist industry and year-round agriculture, an economic base supported by low-skilled laborers, many of whom are immigrants. The valley produces over half of Riverside County’s agricultural income but farmworkers gain little benefit from these profits. Residents—30 to 50% of whom work in agriculture—live in poverty, lack access to transportation and experience high levels of food insecurity.

In order to promote food justice in rural California communities directly engaged in producing the country’s food, food justice advocates, planners and policymakers must focus on the real challenges facing farmworkers.

Lack of planning and awareness of rural populations have created sparsely populated ghettos of poor people of color in unplanned communities. With low populations and high poverty, these regions have little power to influence county planning agencies. As a result, people are denied resources simply because they live in unincorporated regions. Without planning in what may be viewed as “open space,” residents end up living near environmental hazards. Farmworkers, for instance, are exposed to chemicals at work and at home. Poor quality housing is common and even unregulated in unincorporated regions. The vast amount of food being grown in these regions is, ironically, unavailable to those who plant, cultivate and harvest it.

In the agricultural community of Mecca—considered to have the densest population of any rural region in California—municipal water and sewer are available to a small portion of residents who live near the town center. However, many residents live in what are called “Polanco Parks.” These are mobile home parks limited to 12 units and located on agriculturally zoned land. There are currently over 200 of these unpermitted mobile home parks in the Eastern Coachella Valley, with a large number in and around Mecca. Recent interviews with residents of Mecca revealed that many of these mobile homes are extremely crowded and lack potable water and waste disposal systems.

In order to promote food justice in rural California communities directly engaged in producing the country’s food, food justice advocates, planners and policymakers must focus on the real challenges facing farmworkers. The solutions must include a vision for healthy, affordable housing; rural transit development; and access healthcare, water, waste water systems, paved roads, sidewalks, streetlights as well as healthy food options for all rural residents. Advocates of “smart growth” and farmland preservation must also take farmworker communities into account. It is incumbent on the food justice movement to incorporate real farmworker needs into its advocacy in order to promote broader food system transformation for the wellbeing of all people.

*Gail Wadsworth is the Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies