Here's Why the People Who Pick Our Food Are Going Hungry During Covid

Historic discrimination has left farmworkers with fewer protections than other workers, a practice known as agricultural exceptionalism.

Allison Salerno

Residents pick up food from a food distribution site run by the Farmworker Coordinating Council in Lake Worth, Fla., on April 29, 2020. Photo courtesy of Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County Inc.

LAKE WORTH, FLA.— Hundreds of families — many of them poor farmworkers, jobless during the Covid-19 pandemic — gathered in the parking lot of the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County (FWCC) on November 4, 2020, just 10 minutes from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club. The temperature had reached into the 80s by 8 a.m. They were waiting for food.

By noon, four FWCC staff and three volunteers distributed milk, eggs, frozen meat, fresh vegetables, rice and beans, pasta, and easy-open canned goods (for those living on the street). That day, 294 households — representing 1,365 people — were served, some walking home with shopping carts loaned from the nearby Bravo Supermarket.

The FWCC operates two sites: one in Lake Worth, where most workers are Guatemalan immigrants, and one in Belle Glade on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, where farmworkers tend to be a mix of Black Americans as well as Haitian and Mexican immigrants.

Anyone that needs food, they just show up,” FWCC executive director Carlos Perez says.

Dilma Perez, 38, was one of those people. She and her husband, Cirilo, immigrated from Guatemala two decades ago. Their first jobs were picking tomatoes. There wasn’t any other option when we arrived here,” she says. As their family grew, Cirilo pivoted to landscaping for better pay and conditions — but Covid-19 has taken its toll on landscaping, too, Dilma (no relation to Carlos Perez) says. FWCC helps the family with food, toiletries, clothes and household items, and helped enroll the Perez children in Medicaid.

Felix Rodriguez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has managed the Bravo Supermarket near the Lake Worth FWCC with his wife for six years. As the pandemic set in, Rodriguez watched as hundreds of farmworkers lined up across the street. Rodriguez started donating food from the grocery and offered use of his shopping carts.

Covid-19 has hit Florida farmworkers particularly hard. Doctors without Borders found, for example, that the farmworker community of Immokalee, Fla., had a positivity rate of 36% in June 2020. Meanwhile, historic discrimination has left farmworkers excluded from many state and federal worker protections through the practice of agricultural exceptionalism, according to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage, child labor and overtime standards, excluded farmworkers and domestic workers after President Franklin D. Roosevelt compromised with politicians in the Jim Crow South — the site of most U.S. farm work at the time, and where most workers were Black.

Agriculture employers have continued to have the clout, at the federal level and in most states, to perpetuate the discrimination against farmworkers in labor protections,” Goldstein says. The average farmworker earns between $17,500 and $20,000 a year, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. The federal poverty line for a family of four in 2020 was $25,750. Many states also deny them workers’ compensation coverage, and most do not have employer-sponsored health insurance, sick days or vacation days, Goldstein says. Unemployment benefits are limited for farmworkers and unavailable to undocumented immigrants, who comprise most of this workforce. (The federal government estimates that around half of farmworkers are undocumented, but Goldstein says most observers believe that number is a drastic undercount.)

The number of farmworker families seeking food has tripled during the pandemic, Carlos Perez says. Not only are agricultural employers hiring fewer workers, but off-season jobs (such as cleaning and landscaping) are scarcer, he adds. Some of the farmworkers are permanently shifting to construction work because demand for new houses is still fast-growing in Florida, according to Antonio Tovar, executive director of the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Goldstein says a broken immigration system and laws preventing federal funds from providing legal assistance to undocumented immigrants has left many workers with fewer labor protections and with a fear of deportation if they speak out about their conditions.

Rodriguez says the challenges he experienced as a young immigrant prompt him to help others now. He arrived with his mother and has now helped his eight siblings immigrate from the Dominican Republic. I have a beautiful family,” he says. I have a big family and they’re all doing well. If I take three steps and I see someone one step behind me [who] needs help, if I can help, I will.” As long as the people who pick our fruits and vegetables continue to line up for food to feed their own families, he and others will continue to help them.

Allison Salerno is an independent writer and audio producer based in Athens, Ga. and Florida.

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