The Root of the Problem: Enhancing food security among Latino/a farm workers in Vermont
Following national trends, Vermont’s largest sector of agriculture, the dairy industry, has increasingly relied on Latino/a migrant farm labor. My research project uses mixed methods to better understand the reality for Latino/a farm workers living and working in rural Vermont. Many farm workers in Vermont are unable to access basic needs, including nutritious, fresh, and culturally relevant food. By utilizing the USDA household food security survey module to develop baseline levels of food (in)security I am able to compare Vermont to national data. Additionally, in-depth interviews, participant observation, and time spent in the field are also a critical components to this research project in order to listen to the lived experiences and understand the barriers to accessing food for farm workers that are not captured in the surveys. The survey asks if the interviewee has enough money for food, however, through interviews and field research it is becoming increasingly clear that money is not the main obstacle, but rather fear of border patrol, busy work schedules, language barriers, and transportation. The objective of this research project is to work with farm workers, employers, and service providers to address the barriers that are causing high levels of food insecurity among farm workers. This work strives to meet the goals of a sustainable food system by sustaining those who work to produce the food.
OBJECTIVE 1: Understand current gaps in food access for Latino/a farm workers on Vermont’s dairy farms
So far in my research I have completed 18 in-depth interviews with farm workers and 9 in-depth interviews with stakeholders, including UVM extension, health service providers, WIC representatives, and migrant educators. These interviews have been deeply insightful in understanding current gaps in food access for Latino/a farm workers. Preliminary findings and external research shows that the border with Canada plays a large role in determining how farm workers are accessing food. In the border counties, 96.2% of farm workers rely on someone else to purchase food weekly or bi-weekly, often an employer or manager. They are using lists that they will send to the store, but are often experiencing language barriers and a lack of knowledge about what foods are available. Additionally, there are third party food vendors who drive farm-to-farm delivering specialty products, mainly imported from Mexico. These are the two main avenues for food access among Latino/a farm workers on dairy farms. This knowledge, paired with the interview data, will greatly inform my thesis and research project.
OBJECTIVE 2: Quantify food insecurity among Latino/a farm workers and identify effective and realistic approaches to increased food access
The preliminary research of this project shows that 18.5% of farm worker households are food insecure (n=81), which is higher than the national average in the United States, which in 2014 was 14.0% (Coleman-Jensen et al, 2015). This dataset is not fully complete, as I plan to reach 100 surveys before disseminating any data, yet for the sake of this report, it is illustrative of the situation. This baseline data resembles other research among farm workers in other states, who are typically experiencing higher than average levels of food insecurity.
OBJECTIVE 3: Support and develop initiatives to provide farm workers with greater access to healthy, culturally familiar food
In the 2015 growing season I supported and facilitated the planting of 43 gardens on dairy farms with farm workers. The primary focus geographically was in border counties, where there are greater challenges in accessing consistent healthy and culturally appropriate food. New in the 2015 growing season was working in the Northeast Kingdom, where we planted 8 gardens. In the fall, I conducted follow up surveys and visits with new gardens and kept field notes, which will be very useful for the following season as well as for my graduate school thesis. We also held strategic planning meetings to think about next season and how to streamline the garden planning and planting process while ensuring that those who want to plant are supported and that the gardens flourish.
We successfully coordinated two “food days”. One was in Franklin County and the other was hosted at Sterling College, in the Northeast Kingdom. On these days, farm workers gathered to cook food, celebrate the garden harvest, learn new recipes, and learn about preservation techniques. Everyone who came to the events went home with canned jars of salsa.
Coleman-Jensen, A & Rabbitt, M & Gregory C & Singh, A. (September 2015). Household food security in the United States in 2014. A report summary from the Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1896836/err194_summary.pdf
Since the commencement of my NESARE Graduate award I have been very busy, juggling classes, research, fieldwork, and coordinating the garden project. As seems to be common in graduate school, I feel that my biggest constraint has been time. However, all in all, I feel confident in the research project and the progression of meeting my goals and milestones.
We succeeded in planting 43 gardens on dairy farms where farm workers and families are living and working. We hosted two food days that provided a rare opportunity for farm workers to leave the farm and gather, to learn about preservation techniques, meet friends, and enjoy food. Through many, many hours of fieldwork, I have developed new relationships, both with farm workers and with service providers, which will contribute to this on-going research. The development of a food procurement tool is under way. I have met with UVM Extension and begun to develop a bilingual buying guide with images. The next step will be connecting with farm owners who will pilot the tools.
I have completed 18 in-depth interviews with farm workers and 9 in-depth interviews with stakeholders, which have all been transcribed and loaded into Atlas TI, a programming software used for coding and analysis. For my thesis, with the support of my advisor, I have re-adjusted my interview goals to 25 interviews with farm workers and 10 interviews with stakeholders. However, as a research assistant, I will continue doing interviews throughout the spring, which will continue to inform my thesis write-up.
I have felt very encouraged in my research through the support of the academic community. I received news in the beginning of this month that I received the Thomas Marchione Award from the Society of Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, which acknowledges a student working in efforts toward food justice, food security, and access, and food as a human right. Additionally, my research was accepted to a conference at Middlebury College- the Rohatyn Center’s Fourth Annual International and Interdisciplinary Conference titled Food Insecurity in a Globalized World: The Politics and Culture of Food Systems. I will be writing and presenting a paper at the conference in March. I am motivated by the support and hope that I will be able to give voice to these issues and receive feedback from others who are working in the field.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
While I am still in the early stages of the research project, I feel that the impact will be multifaceted. First and foremost, I hope that my efforts increase access to fresh, consistent, and culturally appropriate food for farm workers who are working in the Vermont food system. If done effectively, this work will be replicable, so that other states could adopt the deliverables of my research- the garden project and the food procurement tool.
Another contribution of my work will be to the academic field of research in food justice and farm worker rights, both through my work and in my support of my advisor, Dr Teresa Mares, who will be writing a book based on our collaborative research.
Over the past semester I have met with a PhD student who helped my advisor and I develop a dissemination plan for the findings of our research looking at food security among Latino/a farm workers in Vermont. Forms of data dissemination include a policy brief, a video, and community presentations. We have met with food security councils in Vermont as well as a migrant justice organization, who will use the data to advocate for food access among those working in the food system.
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