By Amarica Rafanelli
We top our açaí bowls with strawberries and slather our corn cobs with butter, but rarely consider the real cost of getting those foods to our plates. Most Americans do not think twice about where their food comes from. As a nation, we are more disconnected from our food now than ever.
Clearly, strawberries are not born in the grocery store. They have a long journey before they arrive at their chilled home on aisle four and into our breakfast bowls. Strawberries, like most of our fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat, come from a farm.
Farming is a big part of the U.S. economy. According to the USDA’s most recent data, farming makes up one percent of the U.S.’s annual GDP. The $136.7 billion industry employs nearly three million people, most of whom are immigrants.
The U.S. agricultural industry would collapse without immigrant labor. About 73 percent of all U.S. farm workers crossed a border to get here, with a majority of them coming from Mexico. An estimated 60 percent of all farmworkers are undocumented or lack legal authorization to work in the U.S. That means that of the 3 million people working on America’s farms, roughly 2.3 million are immigrants, and 1.4 million of them are not legal residents. The U.S.’s agricultural industry is powered by immigrants, whose status makes them vulnerable to exploitation and poor working conditions.
The U.S. farm industry has been exploiting the work of vulnerable immigrant groups since the nation’s founding. In the 1600s, American colonists brought over indentured servants to work on their fields. When this source of labor wasn’t enough, European landowners imported Africans to work the plantations as slaves. Racist laws like the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws bound African-Americans to plantation work for decades. In the late 1800s, immigrants from Asia came to the U.S. as field workers until the the Chinese Exclusion Act banned the employment of Chinese immigrants. During WWII, growers lobbied to bring over temporary workers from Mexico through the Bracero Program, which allowed the U.S. to import cheap labor with few legal stipulations. During the 1960s, the work of activists like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez brought attention to the exploitation of America’s farm workers and helped create the first union dedicated to protecting their rights, known as The United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Despite their efforts, farm workers continue to make up one of the most unprotected groups of workers in our nation.
Cost 1: The 10-hour Work Day
Farm labor is grueling work. The typical farm worker is on their feet 10 hours a day performing physically demanding tasks in harsh outdoor conditions. Sustaining injuries on the job is common for workers because of the repetitive motion of picking crops, lifting heavy bins, and exposure to pesticides. Though agricultural labor is more physically-taxing than the average job, farm workers are only legally entitled to one 10-minute break every four hours with a lunch break in-between. Farmers have a meager 50 minutes of rest in a 10-hour work day. The average farm worker in Santa Barbara works nearly 50 hours a week and about one in four get injured on the job. Producing a single carton of strawberries entails weeks of long, hard days and introduces serious health problems for the farm workers. The real cost of a carton of strawberries would be calculated with an equation like this: 1 carton of strawberries= $2.51 (usda.gov) + 260 ten-hour workdays + Injuries(.25)(X number of workers).
Cost 2: Poverty
Though farm workers work as many hours, or more, as the average American worker, they do not benefit from the same protections. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was a bill passed by Congress in 1938 that guarantees workers minimum wage and overtime pay. Workers protected by the FLSA can take legal action against their employers if they fail to comply with FLSA requirements. However, the FLSA does not do much, if anything, for the nation’s farm workers.
Though farm workers are technically entitled to receive minimum wage under the FLSA, most farm workers do not qualify. FLSA protections do not apply to seasonal workers, those who work on small farms, or undocumented workers. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, 84 percent of all farmworkers are seasonal. Although this group has gained some legal protections with the passage of the 1983 Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act (MSPA) there is a serious loophole. The law only guarantees minimum wage to seasonal workers on large farms with more than seven full-time workers. Since the majority of seasonal farm work takes place during a select few months, employees rarely qualify as full-time workers. Therefore, most seasonal workers are not entitled to receive minimum wage because they are working on “small farms.”
The FLSA’s overtime provision does little to nothing for American farm workers. All seasonal, full-time, and undocumented farm workers are completely exempt from the measure. In every state except California, farm employers are not required to pay their workers overtime for working a 40+ hour week.
A carton of strawberries is starting to cost a lot more than $2.51. In order to produce just one box of strawberries, thousands of farmworkers and their families live in poverty. The median annual wage for an agricultural worker is $23,730 and the federal poverty line for a family of four is just slightly below at $22,050. According to the United States Department of Labor, roughly 33 percent of all farmworkers and their families are living below the poverty line.
Now, let us return to our equation and add in the additional costs: One carton of strawberries= $2.51 (usda.gov) + 260 ten-hour workdays + Injuries(.25)(X number of workers) +Extreme Poverty(.30)(X number of workers).
Cost 3: Poor Health Coverage
A number of obstacles prevent farm workers from accessing effective healthcare, making it so many still suffer from treatable health conditions. Under the ACA, employers with less than 50 full-time employees are not required to provide their workers with health insurance, so workers on small farms are not covered. Additionally, migrant farm workers who work seasonally are not entitled to health insurance. Under the ACA, these workers can buy private insurance plans from health insurance marketplaces if they are in the country legally; however, the 1.4 million farmworkers who are undocumented do not qualify for coverage.
Farm workers who do qualify to buy private insurance still face a number of obstacles for coverage. Language barriers and low literacy make it difficult for many to sign up for the ACA. Moreover, if these workers manage to sign up, their limited means of transportation often prevent them from taking advantage of their healthcare services.
The workforce supporting one of the nation’s biggest industries lacks access to a basic human right: decent healthcare. Consumers may only pay $2.51 for a carton of strawberries, but 3 million individuals and their families pay much more in untreated illnesses, chronic health problems, and injuries. Taking that fact into consideration, the equation now becomes something like this: One carton of strawberries= $2.51 (usda.gov) + 260 ten-hour workdays + Injuries(.25)(3 million workers) +Extreme Poverty(.30)(3 million workers) + Little to No Healthcare(3 million workers).
Progress for America’s Farm Workers
President Trump’s immigration policies have created serious labor shortages in California as fewer immigrants are crossing the border to work on California’s farms. The state’s 77,500 farms produce two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts. The total value of California’s agricultural production comes out to $59 billion a year. But the nation’s agricultural powerhouse is facing a problem. In 2017, about 55 percent of California’s farmers said they did not have enough workers to get through the season. In order to recruit more workers, California is adopting kinder labor laws. In January, California passed a law that requires employers to pay their workers overtime rates for working a 9.5 hour a day, or 55 hour week. For now, the law only applies to farms with 26 or more employees; however, starting in 2022, smaller farms will also have to comply with the new rules.
Progress is happening at the national level as well. In January, California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would make it easier for undocumented immigrants to become legal residents. The Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019 would allow farmworkers who have worked in the fields for at least 100 days in the past two years to apply for a card that would allow them to work legally in the U.S. Once workers receive the card, they would be able to apply for permanent residency and eventual citizenship. If the bill passes, more farm workers will become eligible for all of the benefits that come with citizenship, such as the right to buy health insurance or receive minimum wage.
The burden of producing our nation’s food cannot just fall on the back of our farm workers. Now is the time to pay more than just a few dollars for the produce that fuels the nation. Americans must organize, must protest, and must demand that farm workers are afforded the same basic protections as every other worker in America. One day a carton of strawberries may only cost $2.51, but until then society is going to have to pay up.
Amarica Rafanelliis a soon-to-be UC Santa Barbara graduate passionate about telling stories. She is inspired to amplify the voices of underrepresented populations in hopes of bringing those lived experiences to her listeners. She has reported for several NPR member stations while in school, including Los Angeles’ KCRW and San Luis Obispo’s KCBX. She strives to communicate the messages of mission-based organizations in a compelling and accessible way.