Migrant farmworkers face food insecurity
There is this violent irony in our food system, in that the people who provide food security for all of us are the most likely to be food insecure themselves.
— Teresa Mares
MIDDLEBURY — Migrant farmworkers in Vermont are more likely to be food insecure than most Vermonters, but the reasons why are not as simple as having too few financial resources.
A host of factors, among them long hours and a constant and justified fear of being detained by immigration officials, make it difficult for many to access food, according to University of Vermont Scholar Teresa Mares.
“We are the second-least ethnically diverse state in the country right now,” Mares told an audience at the Champlain Valley Universalist Universalist Society in Middlebury on Thursday evening. “And so if you’re an indigenous person from Chiapas, Mexico, and you are out in rural Vermont — particularly in Northern Vermont — you are very visible. And as we’ve seen in recent years, that can lead to detention and deportation.”
Mares, a professor of anthropology, was talking about the research that informed her book “Life On the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont,” published in April 2019. The book is the first to measure food insecurity among migrant farmworkers in Vermont and in New England.
According to data Mares shared from the Vermont Migrant Education Program, most of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers live and work in Addison and Franklin counties. Both are within 100 miles of the United States’ northern border, in a zone where U.S. Border Patrol has jurisdiction.
“That proximity has a profound effect on farmworkers’ lived experiences here, even in Addison County, which has long been considered safer than Franklin county,” Mares told the audience.
“The geographer Susannah McCandless, in some of her doctoral work, described Vermont as a carceral landscape for farmworkers, meaning that the farms they work on function almost as prisons, keeping them out of sight,” Mares said. “That’s something I’ve witnessed, but it’s also something I’ve seen changing as well, in no small part due to farmworker organizing.”
According to data collected by the Vermont Migrant Education Program, 90 percent of migrant farmworkers in the dairy sector are undocumented. Unlike many workers who come to work seasonally on the county’s apple orchards, dairy workers are not eligible for H2A visas, meaning they aren’t legally allowed to stay here year round.
Undocumented Mexican and Central American farmworkers have played an essential, but often unseen role, on Vermont’s dairy farms since the 1990s. Most are from Mexico and many are from indigenous backgrounds. For many, Spanish is a second language.
Today, Mares said, 68 percent of Vermont milk comes from dairies employing migrant workers. Their labor contributes to $320 million in annual milk sales, the equivalent of 43 percent of New England’s milk supply.
“My research focused on Vermont, but this is a national story,” said Mares, who cited research that found that nationally, Latinx farmworkers experience food insecurity at three to four times the national average rate of 14 percent.
In Vermont, Mares found that 18 percent of the state’s undocumented migrant farmworkers are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As a whole, about 13 to 14 percent of Vermont’s general population experiences food insecurity. In Addison County, 15.7 percent of surveyed farmworkers were food insecure, compared with 18.2 percent in Franklin County.
Mares arrived at that data using a standard method for measuring food security based on standards adopted by the USDA, which asks questions about whether a person has enough money to buy the food they need. She quickly noticed that the language in that survey wasn’t getting at the heart of what was really going on.
Mares administered the survey to 100 migrant farmworkers across Vermont — in the waiting room of the Open Door Clinic, at their homes and at Consular visits. She discovered that for many, access was a bigger barrier to their getting to the food they needed than financial instability.
“Invariably, I would do this survey, which is entirely based upon this assumption that if you have money, you have food. At the end, farmworkers would say, ‘Yep, I have the money…But let me tell you about the fact that I’m afraid to go to the grocery store, or the fact that I’ve been working 70 hours per week and don’t have time to go, or about the fact that if I do go to the store, I make an agreement with my household not to speak in Spanish in public because I don’t want to draw attention to myself.”
Through a series of 30 in-depth interviews with farmworkers, Mares determined that it’s likely that 50 percent or more of farmworker households struggle with access to food.
“We see a lot of dependency on third parties to access food,” said Mares. A colleague at UVM found in an informal survey for a grant application that 96 percent of Vermont farmworkers weren’t doing their own grocery shopping.
“There is this violent irony in our food system, in that the people who provide food security for all of us are the most likely to be food insecure themselves,” Mares said.
Despite those challenges, Mares said she heard stories of resilience in the face of isolation, and of organizing by farmworkers and local organizations to support change in recent years. Those stories are shared in her book, with the aim of humanizing members of Vermont’s migrant worker communities.
She shared several at the talk, among them that of a 64-year-old veteran dairy worker she met from Mexico, who, out of a desire for familiar foods, grew an extensive kitchen garden outside of the small trailer where he lived with several other men. Despite working 60 hours a week, he regularly grew more than he could feed his housemates. So he mailed, in careful packages, fresh and familiar vegetables to his children, who were working on a farm in Maine.
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