Apr 7, 2020 - Health

Farmworkers risk coronavirus to keep supermarkets stocked with fresh food

Farmworkers pick lemons.
Agricultural workers have become essential workers in the race to maintain Americas food supply while simultaneously staying healthy. Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The U.S. food system depends on up to 2.7 million farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented, to pick fresh fruits and vegetables, Michael Haedicke, an agricultural sociologist at Drake University, writes.

Driving the news: Their living and working conditions do not lend themselves to social distancing.

  • Up to 10 people may live in dormitory-like bunkhouses with shared bathrooms.
  • They travel from site to site in shared cars and trucks.
  • They’re exposed to dangerous pesticides and lung irritants, such as pollen and crop dust, that contribute to coronavirus complications and worsen infections.

Access to medical care is limited:

  • Not many clinics or hospitals are available in rural areas.
  • Undocumented farmworkers are not covered by the Affordable Care Act.
  • They have no sick leave.

The pandemic is making a farmworker labor shortage worse:

  • U.S. embassies are operating on reduced staff and services, which means longer wait times for the H-2A worker visas.
  • International travel restrictions resulted in a two-week delay in the arrival of farmworkers to Vermont from Jamaica. The state’s Agency for Agriculture had to charter a plane to bring workers into the state, Alyson Eastman, the agency’s deputy secretary, told lawmakers last week.
  • Canada, which also relies on some 60,000 seasonal farmworkers to pick fruit and vegetables, has a 14-day quarantine period before farmworkers who enter the country can start working, per Reuters.
  • One Ontario farmer, Mike Chromczak, told Reuters his farm stands to lose more than half its revenue if the labor from Jamaica doesn't arrive within the next two weeks to pick asparagus.
  • Pruning work, which affects fruit yields, on another Ontario farm is past due because the farmworkers are in quarantine.

The bottom line: “If the farm doesn’t produce, the city doesn’t eat,” Abad Hernandez Cruz told Reuters as he harvested onions in Georgia.

Go deeper