Ironically, the farmhands who cultivate America’s healthy fruits, veggies and grains may not be getting healthy food themselves. Ten percent of the cooking and eating facilities at migrant farm worker camps in North Carolina failed to comply with established regulations in a report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“The structural, sanitation and pest infestation problems documented in these kitchens are interrelated,” said lead author Sara Quandt, of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in a press release. “Food contamination during storage or preparation, lack of appropriate kitchen facilities, and under-cooking can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses. In the long term, absence of safe food storage or cooking facilities can prevent consumption of healthy foods, leading to elevated chronic disease risk.”

The Stinkiest Places on Earth

The study examined 182 migrant farm worker camps in eastern North Carolina during the 2010 agricultural season.

Conditions in the cooking and eating facilities of the camps were compared to 15 federal and state regulations. More than 10 percent of the camps violated regulations pertaining to eight health risks, including:

  • Improper refrigerator temperature (found in 65.5 percent of the offending camps)

  • Cockroach infestation (found in 45.9%)

  • Contaminated water (found in 34.4%)

  • Rodent infestation (found in 28.9%)

  • Improper flooring (found in 25.8%)

  • Unsanitary conditions (found in 21.2%)

  • Improper fire extinguisher (found in 19.9%)

  • Holes or leaks in walls (found in 12.1%)

Two conditions were found to influence the number of violations found in the camps.

One was the timing of the study visits. There were fewer violations in early summer, when official inspection was most likely. Late summer had more violations and was also the time of highest demand for labor and hence the greatest strain on the camp food services’ resources. Consequently, it also meant a larger number of workers potentially exposed to unhealthy conditions.

Another influence on the number of violations was the visa status of the migrant workers. In camps that employed workers with H2-A temporary work visas, there were fewer violations. Farms that employ visa-holders are required to submit to health inspections of the living conditions of workers. These camps are also subject to the oversight of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farm workers’ union.

Workers without H2-A visas did not have the same union or government protections, and their camps’ kitchen and food facilities were more likely to be unsanitary.

The difference in working conditions between migrant workers with visas and without has been an issue since even before Cesar Chavez brought attention to the issue in the 1960’s. Chavez was an agricultural labor leader who worked to better the lives of farm workers. Chavez opposed illegal immigration because it led to exploitation of undocumented workers and reduced the bargaining power of visa-holding immigrants and Americans. For example, when farm workers would strike to improve working conditions, unscrupulous farm owners could hire undocumented migrants who were willing to put up with squalid conditions, backbreaking labor and wretched pay.

The American Journal of Public Health study also interviewed camp inhabitants and found that 95 percent were from Mexico. However, only 65 percent had H2-A visas. The workers were not directly asked if they were undocumented or in the United States illegally.

Some camps (18 percent of those asked) refused to allow researchers access, which raises suspicions about health conditions in those locations as well as the legality of their hiring procedures.

IMAGE: Migrant grape pickers in California (Tomas Castelazo, Wikimedia Commons)