The Obesity Epidemic Among California’s Farm workers

Consuelo Sanchez’s small two-bedroom home buzzes in the morning as she rushes her kids off to school. The single mother of three makes smoothies for breakfast, throwing frozen fruit and milk into a blender and laying out big glasses for the family before they scramble into her small car for the ride to school.

But by the end of her 12-hour work day packing plums at an industrial plant, Consuelo gets home close to 8 p.m., and more often than not, brings home a pizza or burgers rather than prepare a healthy home-cooked meal.

“I try,” Sanchez said. “I want to be healthy, but it¹s hard for me.”

At 4’9″ and 176 pounds, Sanchez is obese, and pre-diabetic, as is her 14-years-old son. “It worries me, because my mother has diabetes,” she said.

Throughout California’s Central Valley, where half of the food America consumes comes from, about 80 percent of the farm workers are overweight or obese. It¹s a staggering rate, especially considering that they spend their days picking fresh fruits and vegetables. But there are a lot of reasons the people who pick our crops are so unhealthy.

The Problem

“You can’t make the right choice if the right choice is not available to you,” explains Genoveva Islas-Hooker, director with CCROPP, the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.

Kettleman City is a farm working town of 1,500 in the heart of the Valley, where more than half the residents fall below the poverty line. The town is a good illustration of the environmental factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic in the region.

There are half a dozen fast food restaurants a mile and a half from Kettleman City, but not a single full sized grocery store with a fully-stocked produce aisle for more than 20 miles.

“It’s such an injustice,” Islas-Hooker said. “Why is it that someone who¹s slaving everyday who has that produce in their hands, putting it in a box, can’t come home and eat that same produce?”

In another strange irony, the decades of industrial farming that supports the Valley’s economy and the livelihood of the workers has left the groundwater so contaminated that the tap water is undrinkable. And often soda is a cheaper option than bottled water.

The Solutions

Advocates like Islas-Hooker point to policy changes that they say would make big differences. One is shifting the billions in government subsidies that go towards corn, used to make sweeteners like corn syrup and cheap snack foods, toward fruits and vegetables. No government subsidies go to fruit and vegetable growers, which are considered “specialty” crops by the Food and Drug Administration.

Another is increasing wages for farm workers so they have the spending power to attract grocery stores to their towns. Farm workers generally earn minimum wage and are eligible for overtime in California only after working 10 hours a day or 60 hours in a week.

But sweeping policy changes can be difficult to push through.

There have been successes, though, in smaller grassroots efforts throughout the Valley that attempt to solve the obesity epidemic in ways that fit farm workers’ cultures and lives.

Josette Guzman runs a community health program that uses a traditional Latin American “promotora” or peer educator model in which farm workers teach the weekly cooking and exercise classes.

“The promotoras, they’re within their community, they’re their neighbor,” Guzman explained. “They’re the people that they hangout with on the weekends.”

This kind of cultural awareness is necessary for any successful program targeting farm workers, according to Mark Schenker, a researcher at the UC-Davis Western Center for Occupational Health. Schenker studied a program called Sembrando Salud, or the Healthy Lifestyle Initiative, which brings health programs to the fields.

“Most materials [relating to obesity] weren¹t focused on low education level Latinos, they mostly focused on middle-class people, so all the images had to change,” Schenker said. “Showing people running the park, well that’s great, but that’s a different reality.”

The program, developed by Reiter Affiliated Companies, the biggest berry supplier in the US, aims to reach farm workers at work, incorporating weekly lunchtime health classes, as well as evening exercise classes and family-oriented hikes and sports nights.

The program has been running for three years with good results. On average, participants lose about five pounds in the 10-week program, and cholesterol levels drop.

“We believe that if our people are healthier and happier, they’ll be more productive and more loyal employees, and in the end they’re going to be able to make more money and take care of their families, which is what everybody wants,” says Cesar Hernandez, director of philanthropy for Reiter.

The company is hoping to expand the program to different farms throughout the Valley. One new farmer who adopted Sembrando Salud this year is Roy Fuentes. Fuentes employs 100 workers at his organic raspberry ranch, and about 37 participated in the program.

Fuentes has seen picking speeds increase since implementing it.

“It’s definitely making an impact, you know the attitude is great, you know they come in happy,” says Fuentes. “They’re learning a lot. And that’s a big plus for us.”