Farmworkers: Can't afford the food they grow?

December 06, 2006
The perception that fruits and vegetables are too expensive helps explain why Fresno County farmworkers eat too few of these foods, according to Christy Getz, a UC Berkeley specialist who focuses on natural resource-dependent workers and communities.

Previous studies have suggested a link between poor nutrition and high rates of overweight, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol in the generally young and active farmworker population.

Getz and her colleagues at the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis, Calif., conducted surveys and focus groups with Fresno County farmworkers in 2005. They found that more than 40 percent of the Fresno County farmworkers surveyed ate fewer than three servings of fruit and vegetables per day year round, far below the USDA guidelines, which suggest 9 to 13 daily servings of fruits and vegetables for good health.

Time constraints during the busy summer months were among the reasons raised by several farmworkers who participated in the study for not eating more healthfully.

"In the summer we work 10 hours a day in the field or the packing house, and we don't have a lot of time to cook. We eat at fast-food restaurants two or three times a week," said one study participant.

Other reasons frequently given for inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption were a perceived inability to prepare healthful foods, poor quality of produce at local stores, and the fact that they, their children or their spouses simply don't like them.

But in the statistical analysis that associated the actual amount of fruits and vegetables eaten with reasons given by the respondents for their lack of fruit and vegetable consumption, the researchers learned that the only real barrier to eating fruits and vegetables was related to the perception that produce is not affordable.

"While income is not directly correlated with fruit and vegetable consumption, the price of fruits and vegetables, and whether they are perceived to be 'too expensive,' does seem to have a significant impact on fruit and vegetable consumption," Getz said.

Some of the open-ended responses collected as part of the survey also reflected this conclusion.

"I need to eat more vegetables, but we can't buy them," said one.

Another said, "I don't have money to buy vegetables, so we eat a lot of beans and potatoes."

Food insecurity an issue in the farmworker population

The survey results are related to general food insecurity, which can take many forms. Food insecurity ranges from a painful sensation of hunger at its most severe, to families being relegated to a few inexpensive staple foods - like beans, rice and lard - that do not alone make up a nutritious and varied diet. Inconsistent availability of food, lack of transportation to grocery stores, and skipping meals to keep food costs down are also under the umbrella of food insecurity.

California's San Joaquin Valley, the premier agricultural region in the nation, has the highest prevalence of food insecurity of any region in the state. Fresno County, with a food insecurity rate of 36 percent, had the second highest rate in the state, behind neighboring Tulare County at 41 percent, according to the California Health Interview Survey, conducted in 2001 by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Getz and her colleagues centered their research in Fresno County because of its status as the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation and because of its high level of food insecurity. They interviewed 454 farmworkers in Spanish and the Mexican indigenous language Mixteco in five communities with high concentrations of farmworkers: Huron, Parlier, a labor camp in Five Points and two neighborhoods in the city of Fresno. In order to capture seasonal variation, half the surveys were conducted in the winter months (January to April 2005) and half in the summer months (June to September 2005). Focus groups with farmworkers were conducted before and after the surveys to collect information for survey development, and to follow-up on issues of interest that emerged from survey data.

Farmworkers' weight, blood pressure and cholesterol higher than general population's

The high incidence of unhealthy physical indicators in the farmworker population reported by the California Agricultural Worker Health Survey (CAWHS) in 1999 led the researchers to expect vast food insecurity among the people they surveyed. According to CAWHS, 81 percent of men and 76 percent of women doing farm work were overweight; and 28 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women were obese. More than twice the number of male and female farmworkers aged 20 to 34 had high blood pressure compared to the incidence of hypertension in the U.S. adult population. Male farmworkers also had higher cholesterol than average U.S. adults.

"Considering these poor health indicators, in addition to very low income levels, we were surprised we didn't find food insecurity to be higher among farmworkers than our surveys indicated," Getz said. "It seems the farmworkers have developed coping strategies that would be intriguing for us to follow up on in a future study. We also expected farmworkers' food security would vary between the summer and the winter, due to the seasonal nature of agricultural work. However, our surveys told a different story."

The percentage of respondents who were food insecure was virtually identical in the summer and in the winter. Forty-eight percent of the Fresno farmworkers interviewed were food insecure, compared to 36 percent of the general population in Fresno County.

The summer and winter surveys did reveal significant differences for the farmworkers in a variety of financial factors, including income, rent costs, amount of money sent abroad, and food stamp usage. While income was higher in the summer, at that time the respondents were also more likely to pay higher rents and to send more money to their families in Mexico.

"It's possible that the improvements in financial status that farmworkers see in the summer are enough to prevent hunger, but not necessarily to move them out of food insecurity," Getz said.

Overall, the surveys indicated dietary quality was worse in the summer than in the winter. In the summer, 90 percent reported eating a diet higher in fat than is recommended by the USDA dietary guidelines, 41 percent ate less than three servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and 25 percent ate at fast-food restaurants once or more each week. In the winter, 83 percent reported eating a high-fat diet, 42 percent ate less than three servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and 15 percent ate at fast-food restaurants once or more each week.

Food stamps under-utilized by farmworker families

Getz and her colleagues also looked at the usage of food stamps in the farmworker population they studied. Just over half the respondents who were eligible for food stamps received them in the winter, and only 37 percent of those eligible received them in the summer. (Eligibility was determined based on household income, whether at least one adult in the family was documented or whether the family included a child that was born in the United States.)

"A number of respondents said that they feared receiving food stamps would compromise their immigration status and chances of gaining residency status in the future, a common misconception about the food stamp program," Getz said. "But even if they were accessing the benefits, our research found that the benefit works out to be very low."

Many farmworker families may only be eligible to receive benefits for their U.S.-born children. However, it is unlikely that the food stamp dollars received are just used to purchase food for that child. When the total food stamp benefit for a family was divided by the number of people in the household, the monthly benefit was just $20 per person in the winter and $10 per person in the summer.

"It is sad that laboring in the world's most productive agricultural fields isn't enough to ensure farmworkers and their families can eat a healthful and sufficient diet all year long," Getz said.
--Jeannette Warnert