How Migrant Workers Put Food on Our Tables
by Allison Arnold
Up until he was 19 years old, Feliciano Paredes travelled across the country with his family working as migrant farm workers and harvesting crops. They would typically start in Texas and work their way through Florida and Arkansas before ending in Michigan.
The migrant community is vital to our food system,” Teresa Hendricks said in an email response. Hendricks is the Executive Director and Senior Litigator at Migrant Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that helps protect the rights of migrant workers by providing free legal services and assistance for a variety of issues ranging from housing and work conditions to health and food security. “Everything that is healthy for you on your plate likely passed first through the hands of a farmworker, making them the critical link for a healthy and sustainable food system.”
There are nearly 50,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the state, according to the most recent Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study, and agriculture has an over $91 billion impact on Michigan’s economy, according to state data.
“Without these workers, we would not be eating fresh local food and would not benefit from that economic impact,” Hendricks explained.
Despite the vital contribution farmworkers make to our state, many face challenges that threaten their health, safety and well-being. Living conditions are often poor and labor is strenuous and even dangerous. Vulnerabilities often depend on the type of worker, according to Hendricks, but the undocumented community, which makes up a large portion of the workforce, can be taken advantage of.
“A lot of the challenges that I saw when I was growing up, over 15 years ago, they were still very apparent in this ecosystem,” Paredes said.
Today, Paredes is the founder of AgHelp, a mobile application that not only connects farm workers with employers but also with resources that assist them with the challenges they may be facing, many of which Paredes says he experienced when traveling as a migrant worker. He took inspiration from popular sites and applications at the time such as Yelp and FourSquare, and knew there had to be a way to use technology and take a holistic approach to the labor shortage. Employers need to connect to workers and migrant and seasonal farmworkers need to connect to employment opportunities.
“There’s an entire community of workers that are working, laboring long hours, traveling sometimes across the country to harvest the fruits and vegetables for us to enjoy every day,” Paredes explained.
Despite the typical challenges the community faces, they have continued to work through the pandemic, as agriculture is considered an essential industry. “So, during a time that every other type of industry was closed, farmworkers were still out there harvesting in the fields...working in agriculture regardless of what their work status is, whether they were legal or not, they were out there working for us to have either a source of fruits and vegetables and food for our families.”
Migrant workers are more vulnerable than the general population when it comes to COVID-19, according to Hendricks, because of their work, living and transportation conditions.
“Asparagus pickers ride a machine often for 15 hours per day, exerting themselves while riding side by side next to their coworkers,” Hendricks said. “Apple pickers work frequently in pairs to fill boxes of apples, blueberry workers line up to turn in their bucket of blueberries to a common weigh station, nursery workers stand next to each other working on the line, meat processors and dairy workers also have close contact work conditions.”
Hendricks estimates that we would have half the production we usually expect, and that’s only if social distancing were possible for workers.
“Migrant agricultural workers are an essential workforce in Michigan and securing their health and well-being will ensure that Michigan’s food supply chain is not disrupted,” said Governor Whitmer in Executive Order 2020-137. It extends a previous order until the end of the growing season, which provides protection for migrant workers, such as separating beds by at least six feet and providing isolation housing for those who test positive for COVID-19.
From supporting the economy, to regularly filling thousands of plates with fresh produce, migrant and seasonal farmworkers play a vital role in the growth and prosperity of the state. They have for decades and even through this global pandemic, their work is one of the few things that has remained constant.
Through #FiveForFarmworkers, a five dollar donation allows Migrant Legal Aid to provide a farmworker with a mask, hand sanitizer and a pair of gloves.