How Many Farmworkers Are Food Insecure? It’s Hard to Tell

November 21, 2022 | 9:30 am
photo of a woman speaking to a crowd on a city street through a microphone, in front of a sign that says "sub-poverty wages: I'm not lovin' it"Carlos Fernandez, CIW/Flickr
Alice Reznickova
Former Contributor

Born and raised in the Czech Republic, I only learned about Thanksgiving traditions through watching TV shows from the United States. The table is filled with the best produce the fall harvest can offer—roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce accompanying the big star of the show (in my case, a vegetarian turkey)—and families share time together and express gratitude for their food. But gratitude is not enough when those who delivered the feast to our tables do not have enough to feed their own families.  

The history of farm work in the United States is a history of violence. From slavery through the Bracero program to migrant workers in the 1960s, our food has been produced and harvested under brutal conditions including loss of freedom, lack of access to citizenship, and hazardous, sometimes deadly, environments both at work and at home. While people may think the situation is different today, daily life is still full of dangers for the estimated 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, most of whom are Hispanic and Indigenous. The farmworkers who are responsible for your Thanksgiving dinner are facing many hazards both at work and in their communities.

It is ironic that one of the dangers is food and nutrition insecurity. While farmworkers harvest thousands of pounds of food every day, they may not be able to put food on their own Thanksgiving tables—despite recent assurances from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that everyone who wants to get a turkey can get one. And our gratitude is not enough without action.

There is no national survey of farmworker food insecurity

While the USDA publishes national statistics on food security annually, the data do not track which occupations may be most vulnerable to food insecurity. However, the data do show that among households earning $34,060 or less in 2020—which was actually 30 percent higher than the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four—almost one-third were food insecure. Farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the United States, with average family incomes between $25,000 and $29,999 in 2020, so we would expect high rates of food insecurity among these families. Among families with six or more members, 44 percent fell below the federal poverty guidelines, which means that more children may be at risk of food insecurity.

But without data collection on the national level, we can only guess how many farmworker families are affected. Small-scale studies of individual communities of farmworkers may give us a better idea but are not a substitute for national data.  

Studies show food insecurity rates higher than in the general population

The limited local research that does exist confirms that farmworkers’ families are more vulnerable to food insecurity than the general population. I identified a small number of local studies in the past 20 years that reported between 47 and 82 percent of farmworker households experience food insecurity (for example in Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas). This rate is almost five to eight times higher than food insecurity in the general population. It is also three to five times higher than food insecurity among Hispanic households overall. Based on the estimated number of farmworkers, between 1.1 million and 1.9 million farmworkers and their family members including children do not know where their next meal will come from.

While important, small-scale studies conducted at a single point in time are not perfect. First, they only present evidence about small communities of farmworkers, often with fewer than 100 participants. In comparison, the annual national food insecurity data collection samples up to 50,000 households, and the Department of Labor (DOL) national farmworker survey samples between 1,500 and 3,600 households. Both data sets aim to be representative of their target populations. Second, local studies such as the one in North Carolina are not repeated regularly and only report food insecurity rates at that one point in time. This does not allow us to see changes in farmworker food insecurity over time due to external pressures such as COVID-19, inflation, or climate change, all of which we would expect to lead to higher food insecurity rates. To be effective, survey data need to be collected annually so we can understand changes over time. Finally, the most vulnerable farmworkers, such as those without visas or those who do not speak English, may not want to participate. The government needs to build trust with farmworker communities and organizations so that data can represent the most vulnerable.

Food insecurity is a complex issue with many negative consequences

Food insecurity is a complex, systemic issue that has real consequences for farmworkers and their families. It is associated with chronic health conditions that lead to high health care expenditures, and children are particularly vulnerable because food insecurity leads to worse educational outcomes and may set them back for life. These relationships are bi-directional, meaning that increased health care expenditures and worse educational outcomes further limit families’ ability to buy food and may lead to a cycle of poverty.

A similar relationship exists with other occupational dangers farmworkers face. For instance, food-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes exacerbate the impact of heat. At the same time, the increasing number of days with extreme heat costs workers income, increasing their vulnerability to food insecurity. Farmworkers are also especially vulnerable to loss of income and food security during extreme weather events such as hurricanes, which are increasing in frequency and intensity.

While anti-hunger programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and food pantries may help, they may not be sufficient during crises, including the current high rates of inflation. Farmworkers may not be able to access anti-hunger programs due to language barriers or fear of immigration authorities, among other reasons. And these programs are only a Band-Aid on an issue of inequity and injustice.

Don’t just be thankful—advocate for farmworkers!

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be thinking about how we can all move from simple gratitude to action for farmworkers. To understand the scale of this issue, we need to conduct a national survey. The USDA and DOL are uniquely positioned to do this since they conduct annual data collection on food insecurity and farmworkers, respectively. But only measuring a problem does not solve it. Programs such as SNAP and food banks must be strengthened so they are not only available, but also—critically—accessible during times of crises (say, runaway inflation or a pandemic).

We also need to urge the government to hold farmworkers’ employers accountable as corporations are bringing in record profits. Farm work is one of the hardest jobs, and one that is essential to everyone’s well-being. Those who do this work should be paid fairly and be able to afford nutritious food.   

Ultimately, food insecurity is an issue of equity and justice. We at the Union of Concerned Scientists are advocating for a federal farm bill that would transform our food systems to be more sustainable and equitable by ensuring that those who plant, tend, harvest, and prepare our food are treated with respect and dignity. An equitable food system would put greater emphasis on the health and well-being of its workers as the foundation of a healthy society—one that we can all truly be thankful for.

NOTE: This post has been corrected. It originally read “between 1.2 million and 1.7 million farmworkers and their family members including children do not know where their next meal will come from.”