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The Paradox of Food Insecurity in the Nation’s Agricultural Heartlands

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There are approximately two million farms scattered throughout the United States, on which migrant and seasonal farmworkers grow much of the produce, dairy, and meat products that feed Americans. Ironically, the people who grow our food often struggle to access it. In our nation’s agricultural heartlands, food insecurity is a particularly striking issue, especially among farmworkers who face significant social, economic, and political barriers to accessing food. As the backbone of the agricultural industry, farmworkers deserve better government programs and financial support. Increased state and federal support of migrant farmworkers in accessing food is urgently needed to support those who feed the country. 

Take, for example, the Central Valley region of California. The Central Valley is one of the most agriculturally productive places in the United States, growing an estimated 25 percent of the nation’s food at a value of about $17 billion per year. Absurdly, it is also one of America’s largest food deserts, with the Central Valley’s migrant farmworkers and their children reporting high rates of food insecurity. Struggles with food access among America’s farmworkers are hardly limited to the Central Valley, where 45 percent of Latino farmworkers identify as food insecure. A study of Georgia farm workers found that approximately 63 percent of migrant and seasonal farmworkers struggled to feed themselves and their families, and a staggering 59 percent of residents in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, another agricultural hub, are low-income with limited access to food. In rural, agricultural regions, hunger is a symptom of broader socioeconomic forces that govern the lives of those who feed the country.

Food insecurity is often connected to lower socioeconomic status, limited access to healthy grocery stores, lack of affordable housing, existing language barriers, and geographic disparities in travel times to healthcare clinics and green spaces. These factors particularly affect America’s farmworkers, who predominantly live in rural, communal settings and speak a primary language other than English. These social and cultural barriers make accessing food pantries and soup kitchens harder for migrant farmworkers than for their white counterparts. Poverty also plays a central role in farmworkers’ lives to a greater degree than in those of other rural populations. In 2020, farmworkers earned $14.62 per hour on average—under 60 percent of what workers in comparable fields made. Negotiating the time and money for a healthy diet on top of rent or mortgage, long and tiring work hours, child care costs, and daily living expenses becomes essentially unrealistic. Even if farmworkers do qualify for state or federal food assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), uncertain immigration status can deter farmworkers from enrolling due to the fear that participating in this programming may compromise their immigration or residency status. Compounded, these conditions make farmworkers disproportionately vulnerable to food insecurity.

The interplay between farmworkers’ personal, social, economic, and environmental circumstances is especially conspicuous in the Rio Grande Valley, a place of extreme food insecurity despite the fact that enough food is grown locally to feed more than double its population. There, one in four children do not have reliable access to sufficient nutritious food for a healthy life. Linda Villareal, for example, is a farmhand who works six days a week for $7.25 an hour. She, like many other farmworkers in the valley, subsists on emergency food supplies to feed her family and lives in a colonia, an overcrowded housing community on the outskirts of the main urban center. Few affordable, healthy grocery stores are in the area despite the bounty of leafy greens and citrus in the fields nearby. The produce grown in Rio Grande Valley and farmlands like it is sent directly to large processing and distribution plants far away from the fields. Instead of farmers markets, the streets around Villareal’s colonia are filled with fast food joints, dollar stores, and stalls selling fried and sugary snacks. 

Solutions to support the United States’ farmworkers have been proposed at both the state and federal level. California, for example, provides state-funded CalFresh food benefits through the California Food Assistance Program for noncitizens who cannot qualify for federal benefits. Similar programs that provide benefits regardless of immigration status and consider linguistic and cultural barriers to assistance may help reach populations that might otherwise fear taking advantage of public programs. For example, the California Farmworker Foundation works with agricultural employers to deploy culturally sensitive ambassadors to farm fields to ensure farmworkers are vaccinated and fed. Likewise, Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering migrant and seasonal farmworkers operating in Washington, D.C., advocates for improving emergency food programs in rural areas by incorporating a more frequent supply of healthy, culturally appropriate foods. They also recommend increasing state and community health outreach to boost utilization of SNAP and WIC federal food assistance programs. On a grander scale, proposed long-term reforms include paying migrant and seasonal farmworkers fair wages and creating pathways to naturalization. Failing to protect them undermines the valuable work they do to keep our country

Our nation’s farmworkers provide sustenance for hundreds of millions of Americans each day. Failing to protect them undermines the valuable work they do to keep our country running. Indeed, it’s more than time to ensure that the people who grow our food can access it, too.