By: Lawrence Crockett, Program Clerk 

      Malnutrition and hunger are unfortunately a fairly common reality among migrant farmworkers living in the United States. One may be inclined to assume that since often the primary occupation of a farmworker is to grow and harvest fresh produce, that he or she keeps a healthier diet than the average American. That, however, is not even half-the-time the case. In fact, low wages and costly living expenses often undermine healthy dieting among migrant farmworkers.

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Other health disparities between migrant farmworkers and the aggregate citizenry exist, namely access to healthcare and higher predisposition rates to diabetes and other ailments. The inequities across the board are not due to migrant farmworkers’ poor budgeting, or more affluent Americans making better financial decisions. Rather, living on the tight budget of a migrant farmworker can compromise one’s access to healthcare, housing, and food security. A 2014 study published by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that in Georgia, children of migrant farmworkers suffered from anemia, high blood pressure, pre-diabetic symptoms, and are two to three times “more likely to have poor or fair health as opposed to good or excellent health, compared with non-migrant children.”

In Salinas Valley, California, a staggering 85% of farmworkers suffer from obesity. According to Marc B. Schenker, a professor at the University of California, this is, in part, “because unhealthy food is less costly.” Workers are affected and, consequently, so are their children. Estimates for diabetes’ prevalence in Salinas Valley can vary since much of its migrant farmworker population is undocumented, making data hard to collect. However, one nursery school teacher, Lisa Rico, puts it simply: whereas nationally, 40% of Americans will suffer from diabetes, 50% of migrant farmworkers will become diabetic.
Diet is two-fold: cultural, and personal. The farmworkers in Salinas Valley – (who just so happen to harvest most of our country’s lettuce) – can be observed living on a regular diet of five or six tacos and three or four sodas throughout the workday. Tacos are quick, easy, and convenient, superseding any pressing need to, perhaps, consume healthier foods on a regular basis.

While these figures offer very little to be optimistic about, there is a common thread that connects many of America’s undocumented farmworkers to American citizens: poverty. The issue of poverty and food insecurity is not one exclusive to migrant farmworkers, but a harsh plague that highlights income inequality in the United States. In fact, obesity and diabetes statistics among African Americans closely mirror Salinas Valley’s migrant farmworker population.

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      Across the country, there are Americans living in poverty or slightly above it who face the same struggle: whether to “splurge” on healthy food, or go for the less-healthy quick fix. I’m reminded of an old friend, whose favorite place to shop is Whole Foods and will frown on anybody eating a McDonald’s burger. In one of our friendly debates a long time ago, she asked me how I could eat “that stuff” after knowing how unhealthy it is, and how many unnatural chemicals go into it. I told her it would be great to live on an organic foods diet every day of the week, but that it was an unrealistic goal for someone like myself who, at the time, had immediate and pressing bills. I wasn’t poor, per se, but I was from a much different world than she was, a world that wouldn’t afford me all-organic cuisine on demand.

      With 75% of America’s farmworkers being from Mexico, and 61% of migrant farmworkers having incomes below the poverty line, it’s difficult to attribute a farmworker’s diet to poor decision making. Migrant farmworkers – whether documented or undocumented – share the experience of poverty that is all-too pervasive even among American citizens. These aren’t just Mexican American issues, or issues that undocumented migrant farmworkers deal with alone. These are human issues that faces from all American backgrounds struggle with, and that deserve unyielding attention from policymakers and the general public alike.


In a California Valley, Healthy Food Everywhere but on the Table

Health Status of Children of Migrant Farm Workers: Farm Worker Family Health Program, Moultrie, Georgia