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  • Míchi López

Farmworker Mental Health: how our food system is affecting the mental health of the people who feed

By Míchi López


Take a second to close your eyes and picture the answer to the following question: where does our food come from?


It may be that you pictured a place - hopefully a farm, but did the people who grow your food also come to your mind? At the center of our complicated and harmful food system rise the people who commit to navigating the muck, to keeping us and the lands healthy. Market access, economic costs, crop failures, and the reality of confronting uncertainty season after season can strain all land stewards; however, a group of food system workers find themselves particularly vulnerable to additional stressors, such as human rights, worker's rights, and health and safety issues, with little structural support: farmworkers.


Though these agricultural workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, annually contribute 8% of their wages to local and state taxes, our country’s farmworkers must traverse the dangers of our egregious food systems while being denied fair pay and with little to no worker protections. Recently, through the power of collective organizing, farmworker communities have celebrated victories surrounding labor organizing and farmworker overtime protection in states like California, Washington, Oregon and New York. While we can celebrate their wins, we must also bear in mind the need for federal policy to make our food system fairer for these so-called essential workers.


“Undocumented farm workers pay taxes, but they are left out of the stimulus check the rest of us are eligible to receive. Even their U.S. citizen children are left out. They are told they are essential workers but are not receiving essential benefits.”–United Farm Workers.


During the pandemic, farmworkers were hailed as essential workers, a public confirmation and declaration of how vital their roles are in our food system. However, during the early years of the pandemic, farmworkers weren’t eligible to collect financial aid. Though contributing to taxes annually and having the title of essential workers, we are now more than three years past the anniversary of the pandemic’s onset. Our political and social climates continue to fail to protect some of this country’s most ignored and exploited workers. While food system laborers, including farm workers, are eligible for a one-time $600 payment due to the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program, this opportunity can only go so far.


Instead of being honored for the laborious calling that it is to nurture and feed our country, it seems like farmworkers are instead being punished. All of these conditions don’t just make for grueling work conditions, but the impacts of these conditions can ravage farmworkers' bodies and minds. Illnesses such as depression and debilitating anxiety levels are being reported in farmworker communities, yet a lack of culturally and linguistically relevant mental health services, compounded by a lack of access to what is available, prohibits farm workers from getting better. So now, what’s a farmworker to do?


"It is stressful to lean on a new (farmworker) community that is already stressed, asking an already stressed and overburdened community to further stretch their resources to support me… It's unfair how stress continues to fall on our community and we continue to support each other through all of it, but this labor is hardly acknowledged.” -


Farmworker from Cultivemos Listening Sessions


Recognizing how particularly vulnerable these groups of land stewards are, Cultivemos works to increase the number of and the availability of mental wellness resources for farmworker communities. Cultivemos (formerly known as FRSAN-NE, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Northeast) strives to improve behavioral health awareness, literacy, access, and outcomes for farming communities in the Northeast through a service provider network that can assist and meet the unique needs of agricultural workers. Instead of recreating the wheel, Cultivemos takes an asset-based approach by working with already existing service providers who target structural roots to farmer and farmworker stress such as land access, legal advice, rural isolation, and systematic racism. Cultivemos supports service providers working directly with farmworkers, young farmers, and socially disadvantaged farmers, particularly farmers and farmworkers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) because they face unique challenges and have limited access to services.


A farmer mental health network funded in the 2018 Farm Bill, Cultivemos works with farmers, farmworkers, and service providers in a variety of ways, including professional development opportunities, mental health crisis trainings, and grants, with the value of being farmer and farmworker informed at the helm. Cultivemos centers these voices by listening to farmworkers to ensure that our strategy and work is effective, accessible, and appropriate.


In Cultivemos’ 2021 farmer and farmworker listening sessions, four categories of stressors emerged from participants: financial, work environment, farming conditions, and livelihood and economics. Farmworkers flagged language barriers as a work environment stressor. “It is difficult to communicate with others about our concerns and stand up for ourselves,” stated one farmworker. Though two-thirds of participants in the 2019-2020 National Agriculture Workers Survey expressed that Spanish is the language of choice for many farmworkers, they continue to struggle to access information in Spanish about their health, such as how to protect themselves from pesticide exposure. Physical health is not the only area where information and access fall short; in fact, recent research shows that Spanish-language mental health services have dropped significantly during the past few years.


Cultivemos connects Spanish-speaking farmworkers to resources and services in this landscape. Through Cultivemos partners Migrant Clinicians Network and Farm Aid, farmers and farmworkers in the Northeast and across the U.S. have access to Farm Aid’s Farmer Resource Network that contains a searchable list of agricultural service organizations and resources in Spanish and English, such as publications, podcasts, videos, and online trainings. With funding from Cultivemos, Migrant Clinicians Network and Farm Aid partnered to expand Farm Aid’s Hotline – previously an English-only resource – to now also operate in Spanish. A Spanish operator is available Monday through Friday, 10am - 6pm EST to answer calls from Spanish-speaking land stewards and ensure they also have access to information about what resources are available in Spanish and in their communities.


Beyond connecting farmworkers to resources and services, Cultivemos provides spaces for peer-to-peer sharing. Peer-to-peer support services have been shown to be an effective way to improve health, including emotional and mental health. Within Cultivemos, cohorts – communities of practice among Network Members to connect and identify areas for collaboration, such as training or resource development, analysis of best practices, or other network-building opportunities – provide spaces for farmworkers to come together.


In 2021, La Fuerza Latina Cohort published La Fuerza Latina, a magazine for and by Spanish-speaking farmers that highlights Spanish-speaking land stewards and makes space to address mental health. In 2022, the Farmworker Cohort produced a financial literacy guide for those working with farmworker communities. Managing Finances in the United States Facilitation Guide for Employers and Educators Working with Farmworkers seeks to remove some of the onus of navigating a new and confusing financial and healthcare system. In 2023, Cultivemos is proudly funding Escuelita, a multilingual training for land stewards, farmworkers, farmers, and agricultural service providers to learn more about language justice, why it’s needed in agricultural communities, and how to put language justice concepts into practice.


Cultivemos continues to support existing service providers working with farmworker communities and also to inform other service providers on the unique stressors and opportunities within farmworker communities. Cultivemos aims to provide funding, networking opportunities, and other resources so that the folks and organizations already doing this work can expand their reach.


We all owe so much of our health to the people who go out and work the lands day in and day out, and with the 2023 Farm Bill approaching, we should support policies and organizations that help our farmworkers heal from our broken food systems. To find farmworker resources or farmworker organizations, please visit our resource network. To support farmer and farmworker mental health efforts, visit cultivemos.org and follow Cultivemos_ne on Instagram. Contact cultivemos@youngfarmers.org with inquiries.


Míchi López, she/her, is a Coordinator at Cultivemos, the network for farmer well-being.


Resources

Farmworker Justice: www.farmworkerjustice.org/general-map/

Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program: ams.usda.gov/services/grants/ffwr


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