More Than Meets the Eye

Farmworkers are vulnerable to obesity for many reasons that can’t simply be fixed by education about healthy foods and exercise. While those are indeed crucial pieces in the complex puzzle of fighting obesity, farmworkers specifically face significant factors that influence their health and well-being, which are often beyond their control. In the blog post A Big Burden to Bear: Farmworkers’ Struggle with Obesity that we posted on Friday, we discussed why farmworkers are more likely to be obese just by being exposed to chemicals and pesticides in their workplace and homes. Environmental factors, however, are not the only reason why farmworkers struggle with obesity. Social factors beyond poverty, such as lack of access to affordable healthy foods and cultural and linguistic barriers, play a significant role as well. Many blame the lack of knowledge on how to prepare healthy foods for the obesity epidemic in low-income neighborhoods, instead of the tremendous burden of social and environmental factors many individuals in our country face.

In a recent article, Mark Bittman, the famous New York Times contributor and food guru, tried to prove that junk food is in fact not cheaper than cooking healthy meals for your family at home. While his attempt to show that eating healthy is within the reach of even low-income families, it obviously does not take farmworkers into account. Bittman fails to address significant barriers our nation’s farmworkers face when it comes to cooking healthy, fresh meals, such as substandard housing, extreme isolation, and the cultural and linguistic hurdles they face. Mr. Bittman’s main point is that while some people might live in food deserts, 93% still have access to a car, and that while food stamps don’t provide a lot of money, five dollars a day can result in a healthy, nutritious meal. While these points are over-simplified at best, largely ignoring the social and environmental barriers people living in poverty face, he definitely doesn’t take the unique barriers farmworkers face into consideration, outside of just being a low-income group in this country.

According a 2008 USDA report, farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.” Yet extreme poverty is not the only barrier to a healthy lifestyle.  Farmworkers live in rural communities far away from supermarkets and mega marts. Many don’t have cars or can’t obtain a driver’s license in the state they live in and many do not speak English. These unique barriers make preventing obesity a difficult task. Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who discussed the problem in an MSNBC article said, “We have been pretending that it is easy to replace a diet of soft drinks and fast food with home-cooked meals, fresh fruits, and vegetables.”

Farmworkers often must rely on vendors near their labor camps or overpriced bodegas that are usually stocked with highly processed and packaged foods for their meals. Frequently, farmworkers don’t even have kitchens to speak of.  Farmworkers, due to the migratory nature of crop harvesting, often live in substandard housing provided by their employers or campgrounds that lack basic amenities like running water and electricity. Even when water and electricity are available, overcrowding and old, or broken amenities don’t even closely resemble standard living conditions, which the New York Times article seems to assume. As Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich notes, “If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved at a convenience store.”

Blame is still too often put on the individual: “you are not making the right choices” or “you are uneducated about the topic,” according to Drenowski. In reality, that is only a small part of the issue. Coca Cola is the same whether you are speaking English or Spanish. Leche, which is the Spanish word for milk, doesn’t even sound similar.

Education about what foods are available and healthy even to the lowest income families is a good first step, but we cannot ignore the seemingly impenetrable barriers that exist. The health of our country’s farmworkers will continue to falter unless this whole system of unique barriers that has allowed the most vulnerable among us to also be the sickest is appropriately addressed.


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