Meet the workers who put food on America’s tables – but can’t afford groceries
In the piercing midday heat of southern Texas, farmhand Linda Villarreal moves methodically to weed row after row of parsley, rising only occasionally to stretch her achy back and nibble on sugary biscuits she keeps in her pockets. In the distance, a green and white border patrol truck drives along the levee beside the towering steel border wall.
For this backbreaking work, Villareal is paid $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage since 2009, with no benefits. She takes home between $300 and $400 a week depending on the amount of orders from the bodegas – packaging warehouses which supply the country’s supermarkets with fruits and vegetables harvested by crews of undocumented mostly Mexican farm workers.
Villarreal works six days a week, sometimes seven, putting food on Americans’ tables but earns barely enough to cover the bills and depends on food stamps to feed her own family.
Every day is a hustle: she gets up at 4.30am to make packed lunches for her colleagues, charging them $5 each for homemade tacos, before heading to the fields for a 7 o’clock start. She skips breakfast.
Healthcare is a major struggle for farm workers: Villarreal takes diabetes medication a ‘legal’ friend buys from a cheap pharmacy across the border, rather than take time off to attend a non-profit local health clinic. It’s the wrong dose, but better than nothing she reckons.
“I feel like I’m from here, my children are all American, but I don’t have the paperwork, and that makes everything hard,” said Villarreal, 45, wiping the sweat on her long-sleeved hoodie which offers some protection from the harsh sun rays.
About half of the 2.5 million farm hands in the US are undocumented immigrants, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), though growers and labor contractors reckon the figure is closer to 75%.
Even before the pandemic, farms were among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, where low-paid workers have little protection from long hours, repetitive strain injuries, exposures to pesticides, dangerous machinery, extreme heat and animal waste. Food insecurity, poor housing, language barriers and discrimination also contribute to dire health outcomes for farm workers, according to research by John Hopkins Centre for a Livable Future.
After long days in the fields, Villarreal sleeps on an old couch in the kitchen-lounge as part of the house was left uninhabitable by a fire and a hurricane. Her 11-year-old son, who has ADHD, sleeps on the other couch, while two daughters share a bedroom where water leaks in through the mouldy roof. The eldest, a 16-year-old who wants to be a nurse, and her six-month-old baby sleep in a room with cindered walls. The house is a wreck, but there’s no spare money for repairs.
Many undocumented farm workers have been toiling in the fields for years, pay taxes and have American children, yet enjoy few labor rights, have extremely limited access to occupational health services and live under the constant threat of deportation.
In truth, farm workers here are never harassed while working in the fields, which advocates say suggests a tacit agreement with growers to ensure America’s food supply chain isn’t disrupted by immigration crackdowns. It’s everywhere else that these essential workers, who kept toiling throughout the pandemic, are not safe.
“I should take better care of myself but I don’t have the time and I can’t afford to lose wages.”
Villarreal has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for 26 years and hasn’t set foot in Mexico for the past 19. She’s never had a mammogram or a pap smear.
A bountiful food desert
The Rio Grande Valley is a subtropical agricultural hub on the borderlands where the sun seems inordinately near as it rises and falls over the flat expansive landscape.
A canal system built during the early 20th century helped convert this ranching region into an important agricultural one which produces a wide variety of kitchen staples including kale, radishes, zucchini, watermelons, jalapeños, beets, avocados, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Latinos account for more than 90% of residents in the region’s four counties – Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy – where, even before the pandemic, poverty rates hovered between 30% to 40%.
Most immigrants work in agriculture or construction. Most live in overcrowded houses or trailers on the outskirts of the main urban centres in neighbourhoods known as colonias, with limited access to basic services such as grocery stores, public transport, street lighting and health clinics.
A staggering 59% of residents in the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan belt (McAllen-Edinburg-Mission) are low-income with limited access to nutritious food, making this agricultural heartland the worst so-called food desert in the country, according to the USDA.
The streets around the colonias are lined with fast-food joints, dollar stores and makeshift stalls selling cheap homemade fried and sugary snacks. Diet-related health conditions are very common: more than one in four adults has diabetes, three times the national rate, while about 80% of residents are obese or overweight.
The main shopping hubs are the pulgas or outdoor Mexican-style flea markets, which sell everything from antibiotics, fruits and vegetables rejected by the supermarkets, cowboy hats and knock-off DVDs.
The past few years have been particularly tough. In 2017, a new state anti-immigration law authorized police to act as de facto Ice agents and demand papers from anyone they suspected of being undocumented, which fuelled terror among migrant communities, according to Ramona Casas, director of the migrant advocacy group Arise.
“We’ve seen a rise in depression and anxiety among people who are too scared to report serious crimes like domestic violence in case they are deported and lose their children. They live very restricted and stressful lives, scared to even go out to the shops or to exercise,” said Casas.
It was here in the valley that Trump made his final visit as president, stopping to admire new sections of the border wall which left some US farmland marooned on the other side.
These fields still have to be tended. In February, Mario Azar, 35, was stopped by police on his way back from picking onions because of an outstanding ticket on the car he’d recently purchased. Azar, and the four colleagues he was giving a ride, were deported that evening, and his car sold off at a city auction.
The pandemic caused terrible hardship for immigrant families, who were excluded from most government aid, including the stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. Covid-19 also exacerbated existing health disparities, with high rates of infection and fatalities among farm workers who travel to and from fields in packed vehicles, but struggle to access masks and tests. Some crews are still sharing cups for water.
Then came the big freeze in February which brought parts of Texas to a standstill, ruining many crops including acres of citrus orchards when farm workers were just beginning to harvest the fruit. Citrus farmers will eventually be at least partially reimbursed by insurance companies and the USDA, but the farm hands lost about two months of work without compensation.
“Farm workers have always been treated like second-class citizens, they are the ones who always get shafted because they have the least power,” said Mario Galvan, an outreach worker for more than 20 years helping migrants who suffer exploitation.
“The discrimination is not better, it’s worse. There’s a lot of abuse – wage theft, poor sanitation, sexual harassment – in the valley, but workers don’t say much because of fear,” added Galvan.
The most common complaint heard by the Guardian was casual wage theft – contratistas (harvesters, who are contracted by producers and sell to the bodegas) undercutting wages by an hour or two, or undercounting the filled boxes
‘We feed this country, but they don’t value it’
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of cars lined up for groceries at the Iglesia Vino Nuevo, a church run by a Mexican pastor in a low-income immigrant colonia. The staples – frozen meat, stale bakery goods and quarts of milk – were supplemented by bags of rotting cucumbers from Canada, tomatoes from Mexico and oranges from Florida. (Only 3% of citrus produced in Texas stays in Texas.)
Even before the pandemic, one in four children in the valley did not have reliable access to sufficient nutritious food for a healthy active life. Last year, at the height of the economic crisis, demand for food aid was up sevenfold and even now the lines remain extraordinarily long.
“The daily disaster of hunger is a harsh reality here … our population never recovered from the Great Recession,” said Stuart Haniff, CEO of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.
Roberto Gomez, 58 and his wife Juana Sosa, 55, have relied on the pantry since the start of the pandemic when they stopped working at a local bodega, afraid of being stopped on their way home by police enforcing the lockdown.
After a year with no income, the couple owe $1,600 in property taxes – the first time they have been in debt since emigrating 20 years ago from Tamaulipas. “They keep calling, but we don’t have it, we have to pay the electricity and water,” said Sosa, wiping tears on her sleeve. “This year has been so hard, but this food helps, we don’t care if the bread is old.”
Thankfully, she said, the land on which they constructed their modest Mexican rancho-style house where pigs, chickens, ducks and dogs roam free is paid off, as friends who got behind on payments recently lost their home.
Gomez recently started back at the same bodega, but lasted only a couple of days due to severe toothache: the right side of his face is swollen and tender, his gum red and inflamed, but the antibiotics from Reynosa (obtained without seeing a dentist) haven’t helped.
The following day, Gomez was confined to bed as the pain worsened. An extraction costs $100, but even if they could get the money, a dentist won’t operate until the infection and swelling gets better. He’s tearful, perhaps a symptom of the pain, while talking about their hard life in the US, and how he desperately wants to go home to spend time with his father before he dies.
In March, Congress passed immigrations bills which would unlock a gateway to citizenship for Dreamers and farmworkers. If these become law, everything would change for so many families in the Rio Grande Valley.
Some years back, the couple saved enough for an attorney to get conditional residency or so-called Dreamer status for one of their three Mexico-born children, but couldn’t afford to pay for the others. The youngest, who was born in America, wants to join the army after graduating high school later this year, which Sosa hopes might eventually help the rest of the family get legal status.
But Gomez is tired of hustling.
“All we’ve done is work and work to make a better life for our children, we haven’t seen anything, we haven’t been anywhere. Even if I’m sick or injured, there’s no help, I can’t even afford a dentist. We feed this country, I’ve never seen a fucking gringo in the fields, but they don’t value what we do.”
- The surnames of the farm workers have been changed to protect their identities.
- The International Women’s Media Foundation contributed to this investigation through grants awarded to Encarni Pindado.