Hunger amidst plenty: Food assistance in farmworker communities
The people who spend their days picking fruits and vegetables are struggling to find food for their own families. Numerous studies across the United States have thoroughly documented the staggering rates of both hunger and food insecurity that plague farmworker communities. For example, one study of Georgia farmworkers found that 63% of migrant and seasonal workers surveyed struggled to feed themselves and their families. Additionally, farmworkers often face countless barriers when trying to get food, including low wages, poor public transportation, and a lack of culturally-appropriate food, among others. Among farmworker families, the average income is between $17,500 and $20,000, which falls well below the 2016 federal poverty level of $24,300 for a family of four. Given these numerous barriers, what resources can farmworkers utilize to feed their families?
From federally-led programs such as the National School Breakfast Program to the local food pantry in your neighborhood, there are numerous government and charitable programs that help feed hungry Americans. Though participation varies region to region, the main programs that farmworkers typically access are the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP); the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, in addition to local soup kitchens, food pantries, and other alternative food programs. When effectively implemented, federal nutrition programs have been effective in reducing food insecurity among some farmworker families. However, farmworkers often face a variety of barriers to accessing these food assistance programs, and the programs alone do not adequately address the alarming levels of food insecurity in farmworker communities. .
Immigration status poses a significant barrier for many farmworkers in accessing food assistance. For instance, SNAP identifies eligible categories of immigrants and generally requires that they have been in their qualified status for five years before receiving any cash transfers. Additionally, some farmworkers avoid enrolling in any federal nutrition programs because of the belief that participating in public assistance may compromise one’s immigration or residency status. Farmworkers also commonly live in rural communities, where resources such as food pantries and soup kitchens can be inaccessible for families without adequate transportation. Farmworkers who live in labor camps, motels, various forms of substandard housing or who are homeless also often lack the proper equipment for food preparation and storage. Other barriers include poor translation services, poor quality of food donations, and misinformation on eligibility and availability of resources. Thus, existing food assistance programs are not amenable to the unique needs and harsh living conditions of farmworkers.
So what can be done to solve this problem? A permanent solution requires that farmworkers receive fair wages to fully meet their families’ financial needs and that they have the opportunity to become immigrants and citizens with the same basic rights as other workers. In the short term, more emergency food programs must address the immediate hunger in farmworker communities by offering a larger, more frequent supply of fresh, healthy, and culturally-appropriate foods directly in farmworker communities. Sadly, one study in Northern California revealed that farmworkers, and especially those that are undocumented, already depend on emergency food as their main food source. Farmworkers can enroll in food assistance programs by visiting their local human services department or social service referral organizations. Simultaneously, service providers can also educate families about and enroll farmworkers into federal assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, to address the longer-term food insecurity. On a policy level, states can take action to expand their eligibility requirements for SNAP and other public assistance programs. For example, California provides state-funded food stamps to certain non-citizens who do not qualify for SNAP, a program known as the California Food Assistance Program.
Though drastically changing the current system of food assistance would greatly benefit farmworkers, these changes must consider factors such as language proficiency, cultural competency, and immigration status to be successful. Hunger doesn’t happen simply because a family doesn’t have enough to eat, but also because of a variety of factors unrelated to food; likewise, eliminating hunger does not require simply providing food, but also ensuring living wages and access to forms of federal assistance to eliminate poverty. A fundamental change in the current food assistance programs is vital for addressing hunger among farmworker communities, but we must continue to advocate for the overall livelihood of farmworkers to ensure the people that help us live a hunger-free and food secure life are also living a life that is free of hunger and food insecurity.