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Gardens help farmworkers improve their own health

ADDISON COUNTY — Aquilino Martinez has grown his own vegetables at home in Mexico, but when he came to Addison County to work on a dairy farm, he faced some new challenges.
A new project that helps foreign-born farmworkers around the county create and maintain gardens has this summer brought some variety and a little more nutrition to Martinez’s garden.
“It helps to have a little of everything — to have variety,” the Mexican laborer said in Spanish last Thursday. “It’s something healthier.”
The project has aided farmworkers, many of whom have restricted mobility because they don’t have driver’s licenses, create and maintain nine vegetable gardens, which have served up fresh produce for 44 people — mostly adult workers, and some with families, as well. Mia White, a Master of Public Health candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada, started the program this summer through the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury.
Originally from Waitsfield, White spent three years living in Mexico after college. As she devised a practicum project required for school, she was searching for something that would allow her to work with the often invisible Latino population in her home state.
“I knew I wanted to come back to Vermont and work with migrant farmworkers,” she said.
Julia Doucet, a nurse at the Open Door Clinic, suggested a project in the area of nutrition. A vital part of health, nutrition was something Doucet didn’t feel the clinic was able to address adequately.
“The path to health is multifaceted, and there are things that get in the way,” said Doucet. “You look at this population in particular … and there’s a lot of hypertension, and a lot of obesity.”
These, she said, are problems that many immigrant populations in the U.S. face, due in part to the availability and affordability of foods high in sugar and salt on the supermarket shelves.
Many farmworkers also face pressure to stock up for several weeks at a time, since they have limited access to transportation. White said as she began interviewing farmworkers and planning the project, it became clear that access to fresh foods was a problem.
“A fair amount of people are only getting to the grocery store every two weeks, or even every three weeks,” she said.
That, she said, makes it difficult to keep a stock of fresh produce on hand, which in turn makes it difficult to eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
White said she also found some cases where people had little information on the foods that could help create a healthy, balanced diet, so in addition to helping with gardening, she created a flyer to hang on the refrigerator that had information about nutrition and recommended serving sizes.
Some, said White, were excited to have a new project, and some were excited to be able to create a garden like one they had back home in Mexico. Martinez, for one, already had a garden when White approached him. He said in just more than two years in the U.S., he’s found the growing conditions to be a little different from his home country.
“It’s pretty much the same, but here, there’s just one growing season,” he said, gesturing toward the garden. “The soil is good here, and we can add compost.”
Martinez and his roommate have a plot behind their house where they grow radishes, chilis, peas, tomatoes, corn, carrots and other vegetables — whatever seeds he could find at the store. But some things were harder to find. White, he said, helped him to get certain types of chilis and epazote, a strongly flavored herb used to spice beans.
But Martinez said he’s lucky — the dairy’s early morning and evening hours give him plenty of free time during the day.
“I have a schedule that allows me to find the time to work in a garden,” he said.
 For most of the others, starting a garden also required that they have containers, dirt and gardening implements. White collected donations of equipment, dirt, seeds and seedlings in the beginning of the summer, and she credited community members as well as Weed Farm, Flowerpower VT, Red Wagon Plants and Livingston Farm Landscape for their generosity. Anything left over once all nine gardens were up and running went to Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects.
Doucet said one of the other pieces of the project was simply the social aspect. Lack of transportation also means that many farmworkers are unable to visit each other, and they can go for long stretches of time without seeing each other.
“There’s definitely the loneliness factor,” she said. “If we didn’t come for a while, they would say, ‘We thought you forgot about us.’”
White said when creating the project, she spoke with Naomi Wolcott-McCausland in Franklin County, who helps to run a similar program for migrant farmworkers there. That program assigns volunteers to each farm, so that they can make more consistent visits throughout the summer to check in on the garden and socialize.
Ultimately, said Doucet, that’s a goal for the project, which she hopes will continue running in years to come, assuming there are volunteers willing to coordinate and participate.
White said the interactions she’s had when telling people about the project or asking for donations have been uniformly positive, which gives her hope for its continuation.
“There was a lot of interest, even if people couldn’t help out this year,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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