Extreme weather creates a food crisis for California farmworkers

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Farmworkers dig out a drainage ditch to keep floodwater from covering a strawberry field in Monterey County, California, during the rainstorms of January 2023. AP Photo/Noah Berger.

On a brisk afternoon in mid-January, Eloy Ortiz is pacing the back alley behind a white house in Watsonville, California, in the heart of California’s strawberry industry. The house is under an evacuation warning after weeks of torrential rain, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of women and children from crowding around the back gate. Some women are dragging grocery carts. Others are trying to entertain their very bored children. They have been waiting for hours for the bags of beans and maseca corn flour that volunteers are giving away.

“I’d say we have about 300 farmworker family members here,” says Ortiz, eyeing the crowd. He raises his voice so the women in the back can hear him. “Please!” he says in Spanish, “there are some cars that are trying to pass!” The crowd is blocking traffic.

Ortiz is a board member and volunteer with the Center for Farmworker Families, a nonprofit that assists farmworker communities throughout Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties on California’s Central Coast. The group has been distributing food for over a decade, but this is a big crowd, even by their standards. Many of the women in line pick strawberries for a living, and the crop has taken a beating from California’s winter storms. Farmers face up to $200 million in damages, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

Eloy Ortiz, a board member with the Center for Farmworker Families, helps out at a food distribution event in Watsonville, California, in January 2023.

Ortiz and the other volunteers have given each woman a number to keep the line, which stretches down the block, organized. A few women are worried the food will run out by the time their numbers are called.

 “I have number 299,” says one woman in Spanish. She knew there would be a long wait here and brought her own folding chair. “And if your number’s around 300, sometimes you don’t get anything.”

The woman is waiting with her friend, a woman in a damp pink sweater who got caught in the rain. They both ask to remain anonymous. Like many of the women here, they’ve worked in the Central Coast’s strawberry fields for decades and don’t want their employers to hear them talking frankly about their jobs.

“The floods are going to make this a hard year,” says the woman in the pink sweater. While this is the off season for many workers, those who do work through the winter are currently idle. A disaster like this needs to get cleaned up, which could delay the whole planting season. And last season was hard, too, because of California’s historic drought. “We are going to see so much need here this year,” she says.

California’s massive agricultural industry is still assessing the damage from a relentless series of atmospheric rivers earlier this month, which triggered mudslides, flooded communities and killed at least 20 people. For some farmers, the storms may well have been a lifeline, bringing much-needed rain to a state suffering from its worst drought in 1,200 years. For others, the breached levees and flooded fields have been a disaster.

Floodwaters in Monterey County, California, after the Salinas River overflowed its banks on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. AP Photo/Noah Berger.

For many California farmworkers, the storms have been devastating. Some were forced to evacuate, or lost cars and other possessions to the flooding. And throughout the state, workers have been unable to work, losing income to buy basic necessities.

According to workers and labor advocates throughout the state, the storms amplify an already troubling situation. The farmworkers who harvest the nation’s food are paid so little that they can’t always afford to eat. Now, extreme weather events—many of which are fueled by climate change—are making matters worse.

Farmworker food insecurity has been a problem for years. The federal government doesn’t keep data on this, but the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that between 1.1 million and 1.9 million farmworkers and their family members don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Now, with wildfires, heatwaves, drought and floods taking a toll on California’s farmland, some farm laborers are working less, if at all. Farmworkers are paid hourly or piece rate, based on how many strawberries or grapes they pick, so when their work hours plummet, their income shrinks too. Even in good times, farmworkers in California only earned an average $12 an hour, according to a 2015-2019 federal survey.

“That creates all sorts of challenges for farmworker communities,” says Josue Medellin-Azuara, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced. “When climate hits, these communities of farmworkers are hit harder.”

In a study published last November, Medellin-Azuara and his team found that California’s drought eliminated more than 12,000 farm jobs out of an estimated 450,000 agricultural workforce in 2022. The losses don’t account for farmworkers who retained their jobs but saw their hours cut. And there may be more job losses ahead. “The droughts are not going away,” he says.

Many California farmworkers are undocumented, which means they don’t qualify for unemployment or SNAP benefits. The state’s California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) provides food assistance for many immigrants who are excluded from federal food assistance, and last year, the state legislature took steps to extend the program to undocumented residents over the age of 55. But the age cutoff will exclude many undocumented people from those benefits. 

Medellin-Azuara suggests that California extend safety net programs like unemployment insurance to farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status. “[These are] people who belong to the lowest income groups in the state, that are vulnerable,” he says.

Back at the Center for Farmworker Families’ food distribution event, Eloy Ortiz is handing out rolls of toilet paper. His initial headcount has turned out to be low: there are 450 families here, not 300. Volunteers are giving each woman in line a bag of beans or maseca, rather than a bag of each, since there might not be enough food to go around.

Ortiz agrees that the state should expand unemployment and other benefits to undocumented workers. He also thinks that farm companies that operate in California need to pay their workers a living wage. “People are living in poverty in one of the most economically prosperous areas of the country,” he says.

Agriculture is a $50 billion industry in the state, but a federal survey found that nearly a quarter of the state’s farmworkers live below the federal poverty line. That makes them more vulnerable economically when disasters like drought and the recent rains hit. And that, says Ortiz, is the root of the problem.

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