Since these blog posts over the past few months have centered on health and wellness issues specific to farmworkers, it’s time we touched on the vital topic of nutrition. Food is integral to the diverse cultures of our farmworkers, but low wages and inconsistent work opportunities oftentimes render food a means of survival rather than enjoyment. “Food insecurity,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is lack of access to adequate food with “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.” In severe cases, it also means reducing food intake and going hungry (USDA, 2017). The term “food insecurity” feels like an impersonal way, really, to describe the desperation and anxiety that come with not having enough food or not knowing where your next meal will come from. For parents especially, it can be incredibly distressing to not have the means to feed your child.
While 1 in 8 Americans (or 13%) are labeled as food insecure through national survey data, the number for Latinos in the U.S. is closer to 20% (Feeding America, 2017). In North Carolina where the Latino population increased by 394% between 1990 and 2000, the numbers appear to be even worse. A 2006 survey study conducted by Wake Forest University School of Medicine and several community-based organizations revealed food insecurity among Latino immigrant families in North Carolina to be between 35.6 and 41.8%, nearly double the U.S. average (Quandt et al., 2006).
For many reasons, the Latino population across the U.S. is affected more by food insecurity and poverty than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. Farmworkers, who mostly come from the Latino population, are more likely to live in rural parts of the Southeast and West where access to grocery stores is limited. In rural America, a trip to the store requires some form of transportation and time out of a busy schedule, two things often not afforded to farmworkers. Job instability and minimal wages are other major reasons for food insecurity among farmworkers, as much of the work is unregulated, and a drought or flood has the potential to put thousands of laborers out of work.
The problem lies not just with lack of food but also with quality of food. Cheaper food items like junk food and soda are more likely to make their way into a food insecure household, resulting in higher rates of obesity and heart disease. Hispanic Americans are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and diabetes is nearly double in the U.S. Latino population compared to whites (12% versus 7%) (Feeding America, 2017).
It seems absurd that those responsible for putting much of the food on our tables are struggling to provide the same food to their families. While there are certainly programs out there to help Latino households obtain nutritious foods—like the nationwide Feeding America network—there is much work to be done. Our work with farmworkers and their families, including screening for food insecurity and identifying ways for them to obtain food more easily, can make all the difference. This could be as simple as linking the local food bank to families seen in the clinic or by helping qualified individuals apply for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). It could also mean providing transportation to the grocery store for families. Regardless of how, there are plenty of ways to help our neighbors in need. For ideas on how to get involved in your community or to directly donate, check out feedingamerica.org.
Feeding America (2017). Latino Hunger Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.feedingamerica.org/assets/pdfs/fact-sheets/latino-hunger-fact-sheet.pdf.
Quandt, S.A., Shoaf, J.I., Tapia, J., Hernández-Pelletier, M., Clark, H.M., & Arcury, T.A. (2006). Experiences of Latino Immigrant Families in North Carolina Help Explain Elevated Levels of Food Insecurity and Hunger. The Journal of Nutrition, 136(10), 2638–2644. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.10.2638
United States Department of Agriculture (2017). Definitions of Food Security: Ranges of Food Security and Food Insecurity. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx.