Hunger In The Fields | Civil Eats

Hunger In The Fields

Across the United States, farmworkers are having difficulty getting enough to eat. And they’re not alone: Rural communities as a whole are poorer and less able to feed themselves than their urban counterparts. In regions where our food is being grown, access to it is limited and the people who grow it are unable to afford it when it is available. Lack of transportation, fear, and other social issues increase farmworkers’ isolation and limit their food choices even more. The food security movement, working to increase access for communities at risk of hunger, tends to overlook rural people–and especially those who work in the fields.

Rural Food Deserts

Despite being regions of food production, many rural areas are food deserts, defined as particular geographic areas where there is insufficient quantity and quality of food, or where food prices are systematically higher than in other regions.

According to one source, over 800 counties in the U.S. are considered to have low food access with the largest concentration in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. In a survey of 1,500 residents in four non-metro counties in Iowa, most lived 20 miles or more from a major food retailer. All of these counties had four or fewer grocery stores. About 10,000 farm workers live in Iowa year round. And while food insecurity rates for the state in 2002 were quite low (6.5 percent), 37 percent of households were in poverty and 21 percent of Hispanic households were food insecure.

Access to food is a critical factor in rural California as well. One study compiling data from county-level food assessments shows that a lack of fresh food options, few retail locations, and lack of transportation in rural areas all create barriers to accessing healthy foods. According to the same study, almost 60 percent of rural Californians live more than three miles from a grocery store and only nine percent live within a mile from one. When there is also a lack of transportation choices, food insecurity increases.

Farm Laborers and Hunger

Many workers coming to the U.S. for agricultural jobs are coming specifically to overcome hunger and diminishing opportunities at home. They are leaving rural regions, primarily in Mexico, where they are no longer able to survive as farmers due to the impacts of global trade agreements and national policies. They find themselves working in an environment where they have less control over the production and consumption of their food. In addition, their wages, though high by the standards of their country of origin are extremely low by U.S. standards. According to the National Agricultural Worker Survey, the median income among farmworker households nationally is between $7,500 and $10,000 and over 60 percent of these households are in poverty. When combined with the fact that they are remitting a sizable proportion of their income to their families at home, this poverty is entrenched.

In 2009, about 15 percent of American households weren’t getting enough food for their families. The Salinas Valley, located in Monterey County, is the third highest grossing crop producing county in the nation. But the people growing our lettuce and strawberries are likely worse off. One exploratory study found that during 2009, 66 percent of farm workers interviewed in the Salinas Valley were food insecure.

Monterey has the highest proportion of food insecure households in California at almost half. But its percentage is not unique: In Fresno County, the country’s most productive agricultural county, 45 percent of farmworkers are food insecure. Those who are indigenous Mexicans are at even higher risk: A  survey of Mixteco-speakers showed 76 percent were food insecure in the winter, when employment is limited and incomes are lower.

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California is not alone when it comes to hunger among farmworkers. North Carolina data from four studies executed between 2002 and 2004, show that among households where there is a farmworker, 49 to 71 percent are food insecure. Texas has the second highest rate in the nation of food insecurity and the second largest agricultural income.  A sampling of 100 migrant and seasonal workers in Texas showed that 82 percent were food insecure.


Food insecurity is a product of the global economic system and the dynamics of domestic food production. Yet, the agricultural base remains the best solution to rural poverty and food insecurity. There are several promising strategies aimed at addressing rural food deserts. Community owned grocery stores, like the Gove Community Improvement Association in Kansas, and rural distribution systems, like the Oklahoma Food Cooperative and Gorge Grown Mobile Market, are innovative solutions developed by rural communities to address their food access needs.

But change must also trickle downwards through increased private and public funding aimed at developing community resources and safety nets. A recent study of the top 1,000 grant making foundations showed that annual giving from these foundations to rural communities was only 6.8 percent of their total giving. There is room for improvement.

Federal policies need to be enacted as well to address the most marginalized populations. Public funding could affect rural development, transportation infrastructure, improved competitiveness of smaller scale producers, increased availability of school lunch reform and food stamp utilization, and access to low- or no-interest loans for rural residents. In addition, labor policies that allow for agricultural exclusion to labor laws need to be changed.

Rural counties make up the large majority (340 of 386) of counties with persistent poverty. And the more rural an area is, the poorer it is. The discussion of the farm worker population, inequality of food access in food producing regions, and rural poverty, must come to the forefront of the community food security movement.  Collaborative efforts for change require a common understanding and focus on issues of poverty and social justice.

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We should take John Steinbeck’s 1936 portrait of American agriculture as a long overdue call to arms:

“The green grass spreads right into the tent doorways and the orange trees are loaded. In the cotton fields, a few wisps of the old crop cling to the black stems. But the people who picked the cotton, and cut the peaches and apricots, who crawled all day in the rows of lettuce and beans, are hungry. The men who harvested the crops of California, the women and girls who stood all day and half the night in the canneries, are starving.”  


Gail Wadsworth is the Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies. Before coming to CIRS in 2009, she was Deputy Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Since 2000 she has been an independent consultant to non-profits, farmers, consumers, educators, and wholesalers concerned with alternatives to the current food system, environmental issues and social justice. Lisa Kresge is the Operations Manager and Research Analyst at the California Institute for Rural Studies. Lisa’s current research areas include farmworker food security, variable pay systems for farm labor, and program evaluation for an immigrant farmer training program in California. In addition to her work at CIRS, Lisa serves as the Co-Director for One Starfish, a school uniform and sewing cooperative project, located in San Jorge, Nicaragua. Read more >

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