Helping the Hands that Help Feed Us

May 01, 2018



It’s spring in Missouri. Fruit trees are popping with new leaves and blossoms, the promise of a rich harvest later in the year.

When autumn returns, so will migrant farmworkers, many of which represent generations of families dedicated to picking America’s fill of seasonal orchard treats and succulent vegetables.

As fruit and vegetables ripen, they labor throughout the country, starting with early crops then moving on to harvest other areas as various varieties mature. Some migrant families split up to cover more territory. Relatives may be spread out over three or four different locations, reaping produce from fluctuating farm circuits.

In Lafayette County, migrant workers appear in the fall to pick apples and peaches. Then they may transition to Florida or Texas for citrus season. After Christmas, they could be off to Georgia to pick onions. They aren’t always sure exactly where they will be going.

Most of the workers don’t know English, and they stay in small groups – often outside of town, miles off the last paved road. Few locals are even aware they’re there, except the growers who hire them.

Constant mobility and low wages, along with cultural and language barriers, can make it tough for migrant workers to receive health care. “Everything about their lives is uncertain,” said Suzanne Gladney, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund (MFAF). It is especially difficult for those battling an ongoing illness. “We see people with chronic diseases that arrive who have been three to five months without the medication for it. They know what they have; they know what they need. But they haven’t been anyplace where they could access it. Those things that need consistent follow-up are really hard for people that are constantly on the move.”

MFAF, based in Kansas City, is determined to bridge that gap. Working with health care providers, including Lafayette County’s Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri and its Live Well Community Health Centers, they serve nearly 500 permanent and temporary apple pickers.

Staff members meet with migrant farmworkers when they first arrive at orchards in late summer to determine their eligibility for public benefits, for medical and dental services, and to complete school enrollment forms. This outreach translates into a variety of helps, including:

● Evening medical clinics
● Prenatal services
● Well child checks and immunizations
● Health education
● Access to English as a Second Language classes
● Emergency services - food bags, clothing, hygiene kits, books
● Immigration case analysis and representation
● Interpretation of parent/teacher conferences
● Youth programs - teen leadership, summer activities

In each case, MFAF projects a “teach a man to fish” mentality. “Part of our philosophy is not doing everything for them but trying to make sure they know how to walk into a clinic, write their name down, tell them they are there— rather than us just going up and writing them down,” Gladney said. “Hopefully, when they’re in the next place, they’ll have a better idea of how to do things themselves. We’re helping them realize they have a right to do some of these things. We try to make people feel more empowered and to learn how to do things themselves.”

MFAF recently joined forces with the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare to produce a video providing a glimpse into the lives of migrant and seasonal workers. “Migrant Workers in the U.S.: Harvesting Food, Building Healthy Communities” highlights interviews with both healthcare professionals and the migrants they serve. It shares both the challenges migrants and seasonal workers face, plus the hope and thankfulness they express for assistance received.

“It’s difficult when you come over – when you don’t know people and when you don’t have anything,” said Francisca, who received help in finding a doctor, obtaining daycare, and getting her kids enrolled in school. “We came over here because my husband knows…your program, and we know people will help us if we need it. I feel good, I feel happy because of your support. When I come here, I go see you and I’m thankful. I rely on your help. I trust you, and I know I have your help.”

You can view “Migrant Workers in the U.S.: Harvesting Food, Building Health Communities” here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTBPfK0F-xM&feature=youtu.be

About the Writer

Cheryl Gochnauer

Contributing Writer

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