January 22, 2019

Guest Column: The invisible hands in Vermont’s food system

By Eleanor Moody

For many, the opening of the outdoor farmers’ market season can’t come soon enough.

As a Vermonter, I have learned a deep appreciation for food and its capacity to strengthen communities. Summer means Saturday trips to the farmers’ market, sidewalks bustling with people enchanted with the bursting colors of bright, juicy tomatoes and the smell of too many cheeses to count.

Unfortunately, the strong sense of community we know and love doesn’t extend far enough to include the migrant workers upon which our agricultural system depends. Although these workers are the foundation of our agricultural economy, they are not included in our definition of “sustainability.” Claudia Radel, an expert on migrant labor, writes, “Vermont’s prized rural image appears to depend in part on the continued invisibility of Mexican migrant farmworkers.”

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture reports that the dairy industry contributes $2.2 billion annually in economic activity in Vermont, providing 63 percent of all the milk produced in New England. Researchers also found the industry provides 6,000-7,000 jobs in the state; migrant workers fill approximately 1,500-2,000 of these jobs.

The presence of migrant workers contrasts with the quaint image of what sustainability means. Many migrant workers in Vermont work without authorization, creating a constant fear of deportation.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national leader in immigrant justice rights, “Because of their status, they remain in the shadows, their voices silent. They are unable to speak out about the indignities they suffer and the crimes committed against them.”

“We’re only here to work. It’s isolating, to always have to be here, at the ranch. The situation doesn’t permit us to visit cities here in the U.S., to interact with society, but I think it’s part of our life — to be isolated,” Gregorio, a migrant worker from Mexico, explained to Vermont Public Radio recently. Gregorio moved to the U.S. four years ago. He now works 12-hour days, six days a week on a farm in central Vermont.

A report in the Journal of Agromedicine indicates that Gregorio’s story is a familiar one. The average migrant dairy worker in Vermont leaves the farm just 1.4 times per month.

The current political climate and new immigration policies have sent a wave of fear through the migrant worker community. This fear exacerbates health problems associated with a secluded and stressful lifestyle.

Julia Doucet, a nurse with the Open Door clinic in Addison County, coordinated free health screenings for migrants as they gathered for a meeting in Middlebury this winter. Doucet told Vermont Public Radio that chronic stress and anxiety has a direct correlation to poor health outcomes. After surveying about 100 migrant workers to gauge their current level of stress, Doucet found that 80 percent of the people she interviewed felt either “more scared, or a lot more scared, more anxious or a lot more anxious about going out in public places.” Researchers have found the fear these workers have of encountering immigration law enforcement creates one of the greatest barriers to receiving health care.

I fear that most Vermonters are totally unaware of the migrant worker experience and how it fits into our food system. Until very recently, when I took a Spanish class in food justice and agriculture, I was one of these Vermonters. Injustices were happening in my backyard while I ate Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream and Cabot’s Sharp Cheddar Cheese. Like a typical Vermonter filled with sugar, milk and idealism, I could not have imagined that there could be anything wrong with companies from Vermont.

As such a small state, Vermont has a tremendous capacity to be a leader in positive social change. We were the first state to abolish slavery and one of the first to legalize gay marriage, paving the way for other states across the country. We have already assumed a leading role in the local and organic food movement, but we can’t stop there. Our definition of a sustainable food system must expand to advocate for better working and living conditions for the invisible workers who pay the price for our appreciation for fresh produce and bustling, picturesque farmers’ markets.

Eleanor Moody is a native of Williston and a sophomore at the University of Vermont majoring in environmental studies.

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