Meet the workers who put food on America’s tables – but can’t afford groceries
Undocumented immigrants are doing the backbreaking farm work that keeps the US food system running but struggle to feed their families
In the piercing midday heat of southern Texas, farmhand Linda Villarreal moves methodically to weed row after row of parsley, rising only occasionally to stretch her achy back and nibble on sugary biscuits she keeps in her pockets. In the distance, a green and white border patrol truck drives along the levee beside the towering steel border wall.
For this backbreaking work, Villareal is paid $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage since 2009, with no benefits. She takes home between $300 and $400 a week depending on the amount of orders from the bodegas – packaging warehouses which supply the country’s supermarkets with fruits and vegetables harvested by crews of undocumented mostly Mexican farmworkers.
Villarreal works six days a week, sometimes seven, putting food on Americans’ tables but earns barely enough to cover the bills and depends on food stamps to feed her own family.
Every day is a hustle: she gets up at 4.30am to make packed lunches for her colleagues, charging them $5 each for homemade tacos, before heading to the fields for a 7 o’clock start. She skips breakfast.
Healthcare is a major struggle for farmworkers: Villarreal takes diabetes medication a ‘legal’ friend buys from a cheap pharmacy across the border, rather than take time off to attend a nonprofit local health clinic. It’s the wrong dose, but better than nothing she reckons.
“I feel like I’m from here, my children are all American, but I don’t have the paperwork, and that makes everything hard,” said Villarreal, 45, wiping the sweat on her long sleeved hoodie which offers some protection from the harsh sun rays.
About half of the 2.5m farm hands in the US are undocumented immigrants, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), though growers and labor contractors reckon the figure is closer to 75%.
Even before the pandemic, farms were among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, where low paid workers have little protection from long hours, repetitive strain injuries, exposures to pesticides, dangerous machinery, extreme heat and animal waste. Food insecurity, poor housing, language barriers and discrimination also contribute to dire health outcomes for farmworkers, according to research by John Hopkins Centre for a Livable Future.
After long days in the fields, Villarreal sleeps on an old couch in the kitchen-lounge as part of the house was left uninhabitable by a fire and a hurricane. Her 11-year-old son, who has ADHD, sleeps on the other couch, while two daughters share a bedroom where water leaks in through the mouldy roof. The eldest, a 16-year-old who wants to be a nurse, and her six-month old baby sleep in a room with cindered walls. The house is a wreck, but there’s no spare money for repairs.
Many undocumented farmworkers have been toiling in the fields for years, pay taxes and have American children, yet enjoy few labor rights, have extremely limited access to occupational health services and live under the constant threat of deportation.
In truth, farmworkers here are never harassed while working in the fields, which advocates say suggests a tacit agreement with growers to ensure America’s food supply chain isn’t disrupted by immigration crackdowns. It’s everywhere else that these essential workers, who kept toiling throughout the pandemic, are not safe.
Last summer, Villarreal (and her three teenage daughters) contracted Covid-19, which left her struggling to breathe. Rather than risk going to an emergency room, a relative with legal immigration status crossed the border to Reynosa and purchased a small tank of oxygen. In the end, Villarreal was off work sick for a month without pay, used up all her savings and took out a loan.
“I should take better care of myself but I don’t have the time and I can’t afford to lose wages.”
Villarreal has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for 26 years and hasn’t stepped foot in Mexico for the past 19. She’s never had a mammogram or a pap smear.
A bountiful food desert
The Rio Grande Valley is a subtropical agricultural hub on the borderlands where the sun seems inordinately near as it rises and falls over the flat expansive landscape.
A canal system built during the early 20th century helped convert this ranching region into an important agricultural one which produces a wide variety of kitchen staples including kale, radishes, zucchini, watermelons, jalapeños, beets, avocados, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Latinos account for more than 90% of residents in the region’s four counties – Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy – where, even before the pandemic, poverty rates hovered between 30% to 40%.
Most immigrants work in agriculture or construction. Most live in overcrowded houses or trailers on the outskirts of the main urban centres in neighbourhoods known as colonias, with limited access to basic services such as grocery stores, public transport, street lighting and health clinics.
A staggering 59% of residents in the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan belt (McAllen-Edinburg-Mission) are low income with limited access to nutritious food, making this agricultural heartland the worst so-called food desert in the country, according to the USDA.
The streets around the colonias are lined with fast food joints, dollar stores and makeshift stalls selling cheap homemade fried and sugary snacks. Diet related health conditions are very common: more than one in four adults has diabetes, three times the national rate, while about 80% of residents are obese or overweight.
The main shopping hubs are the pulgas or outdoor Mexican style flea markets, which sell everything from antibiotics, fruits and vegetables rejected by the supermarkets, cowboy hats and knock off DVDs.
The past few years have been particularly tough. In 2017, a new state anti-immigration law authorized police to act as de facto Ice agents and demand papers from anyone they suspected of being undocumented which fuelled terror among migrant communities, according to Ramona Casas, director of the migrant advocacy group Arise.
“We’ve seen a rise in depression and anxiety among people who are too scared to report serious crimes like domestic violence in case they are deported and lose their children. They live very restricted and stressful lives, scared to even go out to the shops or to exercise,” said Casas.
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