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Posts Tagged ‘inequity’

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Photo: Tony Avelar/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
The secret pop-up food bank for indigenous farmworkers in Santa Cruz County is promoted by word of mouth. A typical farmworker here lives under the poverty line and has few protections from unjust practices.

As we were saying, a living wage is preferable to charity. But for some people, charity is the only hope. Consider the farmworkers in this story.

Patricia Leigh Brown writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “The early winter storms gathering in the Pacific bring welcome rains to California’s tinder-dry landscape. But for farmworkers picking strawberries for less than minimum wage, the rains signal the end of the harvest season and regular work, and deliver a downpour of hunger and worry.

“That’s why about 170 indigenous Mexican women from Oaxaca line up for hours in an alley to obtain sacks of produce, diapers, and other essentials from a secret food bank once a month. For those who spend grueling days harvesting America’s bounty, this surreptitious pop-up – organized solely by word of mouth – provides a safe place for accessing free, nutritious food and supplies without fear of deportation. …

“[Watsonville] is home to some of the country’s most vulnerable – the thousands of indigenous farmworkers in California, an unknown number of unauthorized residents, who live in severely substandard conditions and speak a variety of pre-Columbian languages rather than English or Spanish.

“The stealth food operation … is organized by Ann López, in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County. An emerita professor, ‘Dr. Ann’ as she is known, started a nonprofit called the Center for Farmworker Families after interviewing numerous agricultural laborers for her Ph.D. dissertation.

‘There was a family with four little girls crying for food,’ she recalls. ‘I opened the refrigerator and they had a head of lettuce, one third of a gallon of milk, and two Jell-O cups. That was it. What I found was a population inordinately poor and suffering.’

“Ernestina Solorio, who has legal status to work in the U.S., spends 10 hours a day, six days a week in the fields during the season. Strawberries are among the most labor-intensive crops, known as la fruta del diablo, or the devil’s fruit, for the hours it takes hunched over low-to-the-ground berries to pluck them without bruising.

“Ms. Solorio earns $20,000 in a good year, well above average for a farmworker but also well under the federal poverty rate for Ms. Solorio’s family of four children. … The math is grim: about $200 a month after rent to pay for everything else.

” ‘The work won’t pick up again until mid-April, depending on the weather,’ Ms. Solorio explains. ‘That’s why so many of us are stressed.’

“From a makeshift staging area in a garage, her compatriots file past tables piled high with diapers, laundry detergent, and toilet tissue, all while juggling toddlers in pajamas and babies nestled in blankets or shawl rebozos (traditional baby carriers).

“Some dig through piles of donated clothes before moving on to the main event – repurposed onion bags heavy with sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, kale, and other fresh vegetables and smaller white plastic bags filled with rice, lentils, and canned goods from the USDA. Strollers double as grocery carts. …

“ ‘You would never see this concentration of Oaxacans,’ says Ms. López, dressed for the season in a bright red sweater and snowman earrings. ‘They are always hiding in the fields or their apartments.’  …

“A monthly phone tree alerts people to the food bank’s hidden locale. ‘I never dreamed it would expand to the whole community,’ says Dominga, who is an unauthorized resident and fears for her family’s safety. …

“Her landlord refuses to provide a rent receipt, and a friend who was recently evicted similarly had no paper trail. Dominga worries the same thing could happen to her own family. [And according to Gretchen Regenhardt, regional directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance,] wage theft – not paying overtime, making people work beyond the clock, or under-recording hours worked – is common. …

“The underground food bank joins 30 established food distribution sites scattered around Watsonville at churches, health clinics, and charities. A hefty portion of the vegetables come from local farms and packing houses, much of it privately donated, says Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest Watsonville. …

“For the holidays, a local church [gathered] up coats and shoes while the Friends of Farmworker Families, which depends largely on private donations, supplies the toys. But for those patiently waiting, the most important gift is having enough food to tide the family over.” More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

If anyone knows of a way to ensure that the fruits and vegetables I buy are picked by farmworkers who are being treated fairly, I’d sure like to know what it is. Is there some kind of label farms can earn? Send it along.

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