Food Insecurity: In the “Salad Bowl of America”

BY CLAIRE CHANG

Rows of lettuce in the Salinas Valley. Source: BrendelSignature at English Wikipedia.

Rows of lettuce in the Salinas Valley. Source: BrendelSignature at English Wikipedia.

Nicknamed the “salad bowl of America,” the Salinas Valley of Monterey County, California, reigns as one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. As a whole, Monterey County contributes significantly to America’s total annual vegetable production. For example, the county produces 61% of leaf lettuce, 57% of celery, 56% of head lettuce, 48% of broccoli, and 28% of strawberries grown in the United States.1 According to Monterey County’s 2014 Crop Report, the total value of its major crops exceeded 3.7 billion dollars1. Since the first half of the twentieth century, the Salinas Valley has consistently produced immense quantities of vegetables. Examining agriculture in the Salinas Valley through the lens of farmworker health reveals the valley not as a place of consistency and fertility, but rather as one of contradiction and injustice. The people who live and work in the “salad bowl of America” face widespread food insecurity, a glaringly unfair paradox.

Food insecurity is defined as “limited or uncertain availability of food, or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways,” due to restricted financial resources.2 According to the 2014 annual report of the USDA’s Economic Research Service, 14% of all US households face food insecurity, and 5.6% of households struggle with very low food security, such that one or more family members experienced disrupted eating patterns or hunger at some point during the year.3 In 2008, the California Institute for Rural Studies undertook a project to identify strategies that might increase food security among agricultural workers in Monterrey County. The project’s surveys found that only 34% of farmworkers who participated in the study were food secure.4 The level of food insecurity in Monterey County rises far above nationwide averages, and the severe struggle to acquire food seems especially tragic because Monterrey County is one of the highest grossing crop-producing counties in the US.4

Workers in a strawberry field in the Salinas Valley. Source: Pixabay.

Workers in a strawberry field in the Salinas Valley. Source: Pixabay.

One reason for the rampant food insecurity of the Salinas Valley is that growers rarely allow workers to take food from the field home for their own consumption. Though 42% of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley reported that their employer “always” or “almost always” allowed them to bring fruits and vegetables home from the farm, 38% of workers “rarely” or “never” were permitted to bring produce home for family consumption.4 Carrying home fruits and vegetables for personal consumption could significantly improve nutritional status in farmworker households. Families of agricultural workers often live below the poverty line and their diets consist of low-cost, energy-dense foods of low nutritional value.5 The Fresno Farmworker Food Security Assessment found that the ability to bring food home from the farm was associated with a 10% increase in the likelihood of food security and provided nearly an entire additional serving of fruits and vegetables per day.6 While taking food home from the field would likely improve nutrition among farmworkers, this intervention alone would not lead to food security. Most farmworkers in the Salinas Valley grow lettuce, artichokes, strawberries, or garlic for months at a time, so heavy reliance on these foods would lead to insufficient, homogenous diets.

In addition, immigration policies have shaped the demographic composition of the Salinas Valley’s workforce; the vast majority of farmworkers are immigrant laborers who do not receive federal assistance or other forms of support. Vegetable production in the Salinas Valley is very labor-intensive, especially compared to grain production. During World War II, growers in the Salinas Valley faced a labor shortage, so they began to import laborers from Mexico under the Mexican National Program. The Mexican National Program was an agreement between the United States and Mexican governments that regulated the migration of Mexican citizens to work as contract agricultural laborers. With the passage of the Migrant Labor Agreement in 1951, this program became known as the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program brought five million Mexicans to America before its termination in 1964.7 Growers kept wages for seasonal Mexican laborers extremely low, so the workers cost even less than mechanized cultivation processes. Even after 1964, unauthorized immigrants continued to travel to the United States in search of employment on farms. Neoliberal trade reforms, such as the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the restructuring of the Mexican government in the 1980s, greatly reduced the economic viability of many small, subsistence Mexican farms.8 The economic situation in Mexico forced increasing numbers of Mexican citizens to migrate to the US, in order to work as agricultural laborers in places like the Salinas Valley. In California today, roughly 90% of farmworkers are Mexican-born.9

The fact that undocumented immigrants constitute such a large proportion of laborers is one of the reasons for low usage rates for food assistance programs. According to a 2008 study of workers in the Salinas Valley, 78% of surveyed workers took advantage of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program if they had children less than five years of age.4 Only one-third of farmworkers who were eligible to receive food stamps, however, reported participation in the food stamp program.4 Many farmworkers failed to take advantage of food assistance programs because they lacked documentation status papers and feared that receiving food assistance would impede citizenship in the future.4

The nature of farm work also contributes significantly to the prevalence of food insecurity in the Salinas Valley. The seasonality of farm employment leads to fluctuations in household income, so farmworkers often struggle to determine whether they qualify for food-assistance programs.4 During labor-intensive seasons, family members do not have time to purchase ingredients and cook meals, so they eat processed foods that they can prepare quickly.10 Although farmworkers do bring home-prepared foods to the fields for breaks, they do not have access to cold food storage or reheating during the workday, so they often turn to highly processed, prepackaged foods.10

A farm worker tends his crops at a community garden in Los Angeles. Source: Jonathan McIntosh.

A farm worker tends his crops at a community garden in Los Angeles. Source: Jonathan McIntosh.

Even intermittent periods of food insecurity can lead to many negative health outcomes. Food insecure households lack dietary diversity and consume lower levels of fruit and vegetables than food secure households. As a result, members of food insecure households often have nutrient deficiencies.11 In addition, members of food insecure households are more likely to develop diabetes than members of food secure households.12 The majority of food insecurity research has focused on children, and has found that food insecurity is associated with increased risks of birth defects, anemia, cognitive problems, aggression, and anxiety.13 Interestingly, food insecurity is correlated with obesity in adults, but studies have not found similar associations between food insecurity and obesity among children.14 A possible reason for this contradiction is that parents sacrifice their own food resources to feed their children as well as possible.14 Another of the theorized ways in which food insecurity contributes to weight gain and obesity in adults is that periods of insufficient food cause binge-eating behavior at times when food is plentiful.15 Furthermore, depression and suicidal ideation are more prevalent among individuals in food insecure households than food secure households.

Several interventions could improve food security levels among farmworkers in the Salinas Valley. Education and outreach efforts to increase the use of federal food assistance programs among those who qualify would help many families meet their nutritional needs. Furthermore, Congress could expand food assistance programs to better accommodate workers with fluctuating incomes, as well as those whose annual income is barely above the poverty line. Feeding a family with food assistance dollars is a tremendous challenge, but some form of assistance is often better than no aid at all. Policies could also require growers to allow, and even encourage, workers to bring food home from the farm. In addition, farmworkers in the Salinas Valley have demonstrated great interest in developing community, school, and apartment gardens as a means of improving access to fresh, affordable food.4 The willingness of growers to allocate some land to employee gardens has not been thoroughly explored, but could enable farmworkers to create variety in their diets.4 Many immigrant workers previously farmed for sustenance in Mexico, and already have the knowledge required to cultivate food for their families.6, 16 Without interventions to improve food security, the tragic irony of inadequate access to food in one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the country will persist. We may continue to enjoy the lettuce and strawberries that grow in the Salinas Valley, but without policy changes, the workers whose labor makes our consumption of such luxurious produce possible will never achieve food security.

Claire Chang is a junior in Pierson College majoring in Environmental Studies. She can be contacted at claire.chang@yale.edu.

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References:

  1. Lauritzen, E. (2014) Monterey County 2014 Crop Report. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner. Retrieved from: https://www.co.monterey.ca.us/home/showdocument?id=1581.
  2. Anderson, S. A. (1990). Core indicators of nutritional state for difficult-to-sample populations. The Journal of Nutrition, 120(11), 1557-1599.
  3. Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2014). Household food security in the United States in 2013. USDA-ERS Economic Research Report, (173).
  4. Kresge, L., & Eastman, C. (2010). Increasing food security among agricultural workers in California’s Salinas Valley. Davis, CA: California Institute for Rural Studies.
  5. Dinour, L. M., Bergen, D., & Yeh, M. C. (2007). The food insecurity–obesity paradox: A review of the literature and the role food stamps may play. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(11), 1952-1961.
  6. Wirth, C., Strochlic, R., & Getz, C. (2007). Hunger in the fields: Food insecurity among farmworkers in Fresno County. California Institute for Rural Studies.
  7. Calavita, K. (1994). US immigration and policy responses: The limits of legislation. Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective, 55-82.
  8. Brown, S., & Getz, C. (2011). Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability, 121-146.
  9. Villarejo, D. (2003). The health of US hired farmworkers. Annual Review of Public Health, 24(1), 175-193.
  10. Borre, K., Ertle, L., & Graff, M. (2010). Working to eat: Vulnerability, food insecurity, and obesity among migrant and seasonal farmworker families. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 53(4), 443-462.
  11. Cook, J. T., et al. (2004). Food insecurity is associated with adverse health outcomes among human infants and toddlers. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(6), 1432-1438.
  12. Seligman, H. K., Bindman, A. B., Vittinghoff, E., Kanaya, A. M., & Kushel, M. B. (2007). Food insecurity is associated with diabetes mellitus: results from the National Health Examination and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2002. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(7), 1018-1023.
  13. Gundersen, C., & Ziliak, J. P. (2015). Food insecurity and health outcomes. Health Affairs, 34(11), 1830-1839.
  14. Townsend, M. S., Peerson, J., Love, B., Achterberg, C., & Murphy, S. P. (2001). Food insecurity is positively related to overweight in women. The Journal of Nutrition, 131(6), 1738-1745.
  15. Dinour, L. M., Bergen, D., & Yeh, M. C. (2007). The food insecurity–obesity paradox: A review of the literature and the role food stamps may play. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(11), 1952-1961.
  16. Minkoff-Zern, L. A. (2014). Hunger amidst plenty: Farmworker food insecurity and coping strategies in California. Local Environment, 19(2), 204-219.
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