Walk into a grocery store during the height of summer and you’re bound to see a tower of tomatoes. If you are lucky, these tomatoes didn’t travel far. But even knowing the name of the local farm does not capture the full picture. Each tomato tells a story of the person who planted the seed, the people who pruned the leaves, and the hands that harvested the fruit.
“One doesn’t really think when they grab a tomato from a grocery store, the hands that that tomato went through, but that tomato has a backstory and that person that picked it also has a motive of being here; they have goals, aspirations, says Jessica Rodriguez, outreach coordinator at Vecinos Farmworker Health Program, a nonprofit healthcare organization that provides health care to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers and their families in the eight western-most counties of North Carolina. The name Vecinos, which means ‘neighbors’ in Spanish, reminds us that farmworkers are an important part of our community.
Farmworkers are often an invisible or overlooked piece of our food system, and finding labor is one of the most significant challenges wholesale farmers face. Even before COVID-19, it was a demanding and sometimes dangerous job. Jessica describes a typical day for farmworkers and some of the physical challenges they face.
“If it’s in the peak of the season, waking up at 4:00 a.m., getting into a bus or a work van, and then working in the field until sometimes 8:00 p.m. at night,” she says. “Some of the most common health issues that we see during the regular season are musculoskeletal issues, having to pick up heavy objects, dental, vision, and of course, chronic disease.”
Vecinos aims to break down barriers that can prevent farmworkers from receiving healthcare by bringing services directly to them, often late at night when they come back from the fields, a time when most healthcare services aren’t available. Before the pandemic, Vecinos had a mobile healthcare clinic that went to multiple work camps during the growing season. Farmworkers were able to see healthcare providers in a private space and received followup care throughout the season. This year Vecinos added a new mobile clinic, but they haven’t been able to use it yet due to COVID.
Farmworkers are still in need of healthcare, especially during the harvest season, but this year telehealth is their primary option through Vecinos.
“Right now, due to COVID, we have just been doing telehealth services, which is a huge shift for us, as well as the farmworkers we serve,” Jessica says.
Many rural areas in Western North Carolina have limited internet access, so telehealth is done through three-way phone calls between the patient, a healthcare provider, and a Vecinos case worker who can help interpret if needed. Patients can speak with their healthcare provider and send them photos of their injury or health concern to receive care remotely. Vecinos is also distributing hand sanitizer and facemasks to farmworkers throughout the region.
Social distancing is difficult while working as a field crew, even when working outdoors. Wearing a mask while harvesting in direct sun can cause exhaustion, so Vecinos encourages farmworkers and their employers to allow for more breaks.
“Staying hydrated, taking that time to take a break and be in the shade for a bit and lower your face mask for breathing and then going back into the fields,” she says.
Migrant farmworkers often live together in trailers at the farm or in barrack-style housing nearby. Typically, between eight and 50 farmworkers live together in housing with bunk beds, shared bathrooms, and communal kitchen space. Ensuring their safety during COVID is essential, and local farms have found some creative ways to keep groups of workers separate.
“The growers are working really close with us and farmworkers in prioritizing their health, so we see a bit of everything when it comes to housing. There’s a grower that bought out a motel and that’s where he houses his farm workers,” she says. “Some of the growers are separating their groups if they have farmworkers that arrive earlier in the year and then they get a few small groups later on in the season, they’re giving them that two-week isolation period and making sure that they don’t intermix when they just recently arrived from their home country or other state.”
The emotional toll of being a migrant farmworker far away from family is significant every year, but Jessica says that COVID has compounded this stress.
“They’re worried about their loved ones. Every single time we talk to them, it’s like, oh, another person died in my town or this happened, another person got infected. So that often brings stress and anxiety because you’re here for a given number of months and there’s only so much that you can do,” Jessica says.
In the evenings, they call their families back home, cook with their housemates, and rest before getting up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields again.
Jessica has some suggestions of ways to support seasonal and migrant farmworkers in Western North Carolina.
“One of the main things is making an effort to be inclusive, inclusive for all of our Spanish-speaking community members. Educating others on farmworker history and remembering where your food comes from. Working together to empower the community, the Latinx and Hispanic community, because many of the times they are hidden, but I think if we are more inclusive, we’re able to see more of that culture here in Western North Carolina.”
Vecinos is seeing more support for farmworkers this year as communities take care of each other during COVID.
“Having a close-knit community has been amazing. Local churches, food pantries, they’re definitely working very closely with Vecinos to make sure that the farmworkers in our area have everything that they need to be able to work the next day and get through this season smoothly,” she says.
Learn more about the people who contribute to our local food system in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: appalachiangrown.org
Aired: September 21, 2020