Bringing Farmworkers Access to Health Care


Barbara Sattler, California Nurses for Environmental Health and Justice

August 11, 2023


Two years ago, we—nurses from Commonweal’s California Nurses for Environmental Health and Justice—were invited to take a tour of a strawberry farm where Mexican and Indigenous Mexican women were working in Watsonville, California. The visit, along with the experiences of our nursing colleagues who care for farmworkers and their families in the Central Valley of California, left us committed to work, in earnest, to address farmworker health and safety.

We arrived at the small-scale strawberry farm with others who were participating in a “Farmworker Tour” sponsored by the Center for Farmworker Families. Ann Lopez, the Center’s Executive Director, welcomed us and asked us not to take photographs of any of the farmworkers to keep their identity private and the workers safe. There were translators, as most of the women did not speak English. We learned of the historic American policies, such as the North American Free Trade Act, that have created great hardships, food insecurity, and poverty in Mexico. When NAFTA was passed, corn—which had been an essential food crop in Mexico—became more valuable as an animal feed for American beef cattle and thus reduced the corn available for local communities to eat. This was a post-NAFTA story that none of us knew.

We learned about the challenges that farmworkers experience: difficult physical labor, heat exposure, wage theft, sexual assault, lack of health care, pesticide exposures, and the ever-present fear of immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) that can, in the blink of an eye, separate husbands and wives, children and parents.From the farm, we all got back into our cars and drove to where the farmworkers live. This short journey was a lesson in institutionalized racism. Up a winding road above the town of Watsonville, we first passed the “dump”—a mile’s worth of municipal and construction waste. Then came the county jail, with its ominous 12- foot barbed wire fence.

This was followed by the county’s public housing locale, and, at the end of the road, the farmworker housing—an array of concrete block single-story houses. There is no public transportation serving the road. This one short road in Watsonville is the story of inequity, injustice, and inhumanity that many experience in America. It is the story of the people that many want to keep invisible, even though they are essential communities.

We discovered many things during the farmworker housing tour, including the fact that many of the farm worker families return to the same house year after year. They are evicted every fall and allowed to return every spring. The housing remains vacant but they are not allowed to stay. Only a few families can return to their home countries; many cannot and instead find very substandard substitutes for housing during the winter months.

California Nurses for Environmental Health and Justice is a fiscally sponsored program at Commonweal, made up of nursing leaders and practitioners who want to make California one of the most environmentally healthy places to live, learn, work, and play. Our tour in Watsonville, and subsequent tours and conversations, left us convicted in our efforts to offer adequate access to health care for farmworkers. In the two years since our first tour, we have produced a webinar series for nurses on farm workers (archived on our website); guest-lectured in nursing schools; received a grant from University of California Davis’ Farmworker Outreach Program to prepare health professionals, including Community Health Workers, about the specific health risks that farmworkers face; and we have become active members in the Food and Farm Resilience Coalition that is promoting a comprehensive bond bill for a 2024 California proposition that will include $500 million for farmworker housing.

We continue to work with Ann Lopez and the local Watsonville area farmworkers. Erika Alfaro, who is on our Leadership Council and also the president of her local chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, is helping to spearhead the local work. There is much, much more to do. We are committed to this crucial work which is so vital to our mission of environmental justice for all.

Photo: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

More From Commonweal