September is National Childhood Obesity Month, which is important to highlight in the farm worker community because – although it would seem that if you come from a low socioeconomic background, obesity would not be your main concern, but rather emaciation – however, that is not the case. Low seasonal wages, a lack of formal education, and inconsistent health access coupled with food deserts and cheap nutrition-deficient food along with various cultural factors result in many farmworker families being at high risk of obesity.
Studies show that over 70 percent of farmworkers, the majority of whom are Latino immigrants, are overweight or obese. Latino immigrant farmworkers in the United States are more likely to be overweight or obese than U.S.-born Latinos and other Latino immigrants, and they have a high prevalence of type 2 diabetes (26-39 percent) …
One of the main factors for childhood obesity is a poor diet. Healthline’s Parenthood column states that “a poor diet containing high levels of fat or sugar and few nutrients can cause kids to gain weight quickly.” In the case of farmworker children, a poor diet is often due to not having enough time to prepare healthful food. Or, they have easier access to sugary, high-calorie food and drink as opposed to the more healthful drinks and fruits and vegetables. Caroline Johnson from Proteus, Inc., mentioned on our #LiveThursday recently that some H-2A workers in Iowa cannot stomach the local well water, and the only alternative is soda. Many of these farmworkers develop signs of Type II diabetes by the end of their contract in the U.S., but when they go back to Mexico – where the water is potable and cheap produce is far more readily available – their symptoms recede.
Another factor behind childhood obesity is too much time being inactive. You might wonder how that makes any sense when many farmworker children join their parents or other relatives in the fields? Unfortunately, farmwork is not always the kind of aerobic physical activity that can help manage one’s weight. According to Thatsfarming.com, “an aerobic workout…is where your metabolism is pushed into burning some of your fuel reserves to feed the muscles you’re working,” and some farm labor does not fall into that category. A workout should elevate your heart rate and increase your breathing, then remain at that level for 10 minutes or more.
In addition, farmworker children often have to assume big responsibilities at home, including cleaning, cooking, or caring for their younger siblings, leaving less time for regular, structured physical activity. And, when extracurricular activities like sports come at a cost – in terms of both money and time that farmworker families cannot afford – our farmworker children end up being sidelined by circumstances that are out of their control.
Although obesity is reversible, many of the solutions are not culturally appropriate and require the issue being addressed in the home, school, and with consistent visits and conversations between the family healthcare provider and the parents. This is problematic for farmworker families when considering 1) the language barrier and 2) lack of consistent access to healthcare. We recently discussed this issue during our Children in the Fields Campaign’s Facebook Live on Diabetes + Farmworkers + COVID: because of having to self-quarantine and avoid public spaces frequented by large crowds, many kids are reducing their levels of physical activity even further. By adding a pandemic to the mix, matters have gotten more complicated for everyone, but in particular for farmworkers.
AFOP Health & Safety Programs does not provide training on this topic, but we do work tirelessly to raise awareness about all of the issues our farmworkers and their families face. AFOP’s members however, do provide direct services that address many of the supplemental topics discussed in our blogs, so if you are in one of those areas and it is safe to venture out while remaining socially distant, please stop in and find out more about your local farmworker community and what you can do to get involved in solutions.