Saying thanks during Farmworker Awareness Week

“Every time we sit at a table to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.”  Cesar Chavez

March 31st marks Cesar Chavez Day, which recognizes the contributions of a man who looked around, saw injustice, spoke out, organized, and resisted. The resistance of countless farmworkers resulted in the founding the United Farm Workers Union, or UFW, in 1962. Consumer boycotts and farmworkers’ organizing eventually led to better pay and safer working conditions for those who toil on the front lines of agriculture.

National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) was established by Student Action for Farmworkers, in 1999 in Durham, North Carolina. NFAW (March 24-31, 2017) is an opportunity for all of us to look around, see injustice, speak out, organize, and resist. In a time when we care deeply about what we eat, we can easily refuse to see the men, women, and children who grow our food. At the very least, we need to reflect about the individuals who feed this country.

History – “We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.”

In 1960, the famous journalist, Edward R. Murrow, helped produce a documentary called Harvest of Shame, which focused on the plight of the migrant farm worker in the US at the time. In the film, one farmer makes the chilling statement above, effectively characterizing farm labor as modern day slavery.

In the United States, we expect food to be cheap and plentiful, and it is easy to see where that expectation comes from. For hundreds of years, farmers were able to bring cheap, plentiful crops to market because they had slave labor. The tough reality—154 years after President Lincoln freed the slaves in the South—is that the expectation of cheap, plentiful food remains. That means that feeding this country today still depends on a hardworking, very low earning labor force of farmworkers. Over 70% of that labor force is comprised of immigrants, according to the 2013-2014 National Agricultural Workforce Survey (NAWS). Immigrants are often the only ones willing to do the hard work necessary to maintain that stream of cheap, plentiful food.

National context

“Work hard and you can get ahead” is core to what we think of as “The American Dream.” That dream does not reflect reality if you are a farm worker. Federal laws of the Depression era 1930s specifically excluded farmworkers from provisions that provided for overtime pay, minimum wage, unionizing rights and workplace protections. The 2013-2014 NAWS reported that farmworkers’ mean and median incomes from agricultural employment the previous year were in the range of $15,000 to $17,499. Sixteen percent of workers earned less than $10,000; only eight percent in the United States earned $30,000 or more. Thirty percent had family incomes less than the federal poverty level. Farmworkers earned an average hourly rate of $10.19 per hour. Since the 1980’s, the costs of producing food has skyrocketed, but the real costs have not been passed on to the consumer.

The reality is that farmworker labor is physically debilitating. Workers have to work very long hours, through rain, cold and heat for extremely low wages. Federal laws continue to exempt farmworkers from overtime pay — only 35% reported having health insurance and 31% report living in crowded living conditions (NAWS, 2013-2014). Here in the United States, we can’t claim that hard work will get you ahead and then systematically exclude some of the most hardworking people from basic rights and opportunities afforded to literally every other job in this country.

In recent years, the foodie movement has put more focus on where people’s food comes from and how the animals were treated and raised. Though laudable, starkly missing from this conversation, are the people involved in producing our food. Are the workers treated with dignity and respect? Are they fairly compensated for their work? It is as if the farmworkers are invisible. They are invisible because many are undocumented and have no immigration relief available to them despite their hard work—even if their employers wish to sponsor them. Fortunately, new trends in the sustainable agriculture movement consider not only where food comes from, but also the quality of life for those that grow the food we eat. A recent study indicated that raising farmworker wages to $15 hour today would cost consumers only $21.15 a year.

Today, farmworkers in California earn about $30,000 a year if they work full time — about half the overall average pay for all California workers. Most work fewer hours. Nine in 10 agriculture workers in California are still foreign born, and more than half are undocumented, according to a federal survey.

The South Coast perspective

The legacy of Cesar Chavez lives on in our great state of California. Farmworkers contribute significantly to California’s economy, and California is the top farming state in the US. Our minimum wage is one of the three highest in the country at $10.50 per hour, with plans for it to rise to $15 per hour by 2022. California is one of few states that provide some overtime pay for farmworkers, currently after 10 hours of work per day. There was also a law passed in 2016 that will bring that threshold down to 8 hours of work, finally beginning to level the playing field for farmworkers.

Critics of these policies argue that agriculture should have its own rules because of its seasonal nature. The person who loses the most in that scenario is the frontline farmworker. Any increased labor cost to the farmer needs to be built into the cost of food. The onus must be shared by a society that needs to be willing to pay prices that reflect the true cost of food production.

Here on the South Coast, all workers are making at least minimum wage, and some farms give raises to workers after employing them for 6 months or a year. Workers are almost all paid by the hour, avoiding “pay by piece” issues that often arise when workers are instead paid by how much they harvest. Unfortunately, even though many workers have had the same jobs for 5, 10 or 15 years, they still earn only the minimum wage. The economics of our food system are complex. It is not as easy as asking farmers to raise wages. To do so, they also need to raise their prices, meaning their buyers may find someone else to buy from, which can put the entire business at risk, including the farmworkers’ jobs.

Housing remains an enormous challenge here on the South Coast. Farmworker wages cannot keep up with the exorbitant cost of rent in the Bay Area. Unable to afford market rent, many workers and their families live in crowded conditions with little or no access to necessities such as laundry facilities or public transportation.

Puente

Puente has its roots in supporting farmworkers and we continue that work today, almost 20 years later.  Puente’s role has grown and evolved in this community, but farmworkers and their families still make up the backbone of the South Coast and hence remain at the core of our work.  Our oldest program, La Sala, still provides a hot meal and social space for farmworkers twice each week. Additionally, our bike repair program focuses on getting farmworkers reliable transportation without having to deal with the costs associated with a car.

Our hope is that our community can be one where farmworkers and their families cannot only survive, but also thrive and flourish – despite the challenges and pressures exerted upon them by antiquated federal laws.

What can I do?

At the very least, say thank you! Farm labor is probably one of the most thankless and invisible work. Find an opportunity to connect with farmworkers and farmers in your community and make it clear you appreciate their efforts. Find out more about where your food comes from and support your local farmers market. Inform yourself about the challenges faced by farmworkers by watching films like Food Chains or Harvest of Dignity. Another very simple way to support farmworkers is to donate to Puente.

On April 4 at 7pm, join us in recognizing Farmworker Awareness Week with the screening of the film The Other Side of Immigration in the multi-purpose room of Pescadero Elementary, with a discussion to follow. 

“I just wish there was a way people could stay.” Gentrification divides the South Coast

Chrissy McPhee grew up near the South Coast, where her grandparents owned a beautiful ranch that she let herself fantasize being able to purchase and raise her children on someday.

But when her grandparents needed to sell the ranch, McPhee couldn’t come up with the kind of money local ranches were fetching from outside buyers. A few years ago, they sold it to someone else – a woman McPhee’s age, who works in tech.

Now she and her husband rent a one-bedroom house near Pescadero for around $2,000 a month. Their eldest child sleeps in the living room, and they share a bed with their youngest. McPhee’s husband works six days a week in the trades, pulling in a decent wage while she takes care of the children. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy).

It’s not ideal, but she’s in a far better situation than other local families she knows.

“It may be one bedroom, but we don’t have a crowd of people in our house, which is often the case for people here. Out here, your grown kids can’t move out because there’s nowhere to move out to.”

McPhee knows it’s true. Her family had to live with relatives while they waited to find something – anything – to move into that they could afford. It took them a year.

“Anything we looked at, we said ‘We’ll take it.’ It’s not like there’s any other options,” she says. Furthermore, $2,000 a month is now a good price for a one-bedroom in Pescadero, or anywhere on the Peninsula.

“We could never move anywhere else, because the rent has even gone up so high everywhere,” she says.

McPhee’s experience is hardly unusual. While market-rate housing is scarce to begin with on the South Coast, an area with little inventory, it’s squeezed by a real estate boom that has driven the cost of a one-bedroom cottage far above the $500,000 mark and made Pescadero and San Gregorio a part of the “million-dollar club” along with the likes of San Mateo, Foster City, Redwood Shores and Brisbane. In 2016, the average Coastside home price (the area stretching from Montara to Davenport) rose faster than the county’s overall.

Experts agree that tech billionaires and millionaires are driving the market with their appetite for property in the Peninsula’s final frontier — “a rustic paradise of redwood forests, farms and blustery beaches,” as the Mercury News described the South Coast last year in a story about gentrification. Open-space agencies contribute to the trend: preserving a property means taking land out of development, even as a future home to farm workers or teachers.

What’s left is a limited stock of rentals that are often cramped, dilapidated and beyond expensive.

“What’s not fair is these homes get sold, and our local workforce ends up living in overpriced apartments or modified trailers where they have to pay more than they can afford,” says Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera.

The struggles of middle-income residents like McPhee – who frequently have deep family roots on the South Coast stretching back generations – typically receive less attention from county officials than low-income farm workers, who are enduring their own housing crisis in overcrowded trailers and barracks that are well past their best-by date. A recent report from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation describes this crisis.

Several families often double-up in trailers and apartments that can barely hold a family of four. There is no designated affordable housing on the South Coast for low-income workers, and inventory pressures mean they are often forced to compete with higher-wage workers for the same small pool of market-rate housing.

The result is displacement. Mancera knows of three families in the past year alone that have given up trying to make a life for themselves on the South Coast, and moved to Sacramento.

They tell us, ‘My kids are finally going to have their own bedroom,’” she says.

This is a statewide issue. California lost 2.5 million economically disadvantaged residents to less-expensive states between 2005 and 2015, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census data by the Sacramento Bee. In that same period, California attracted new, wealthier residents at a higher rate.

But in a small community like the South Coast, even incremental changes have unexpected ripple effects. Wealthier families with small children have created a problem by offering to pay some local childcare providers far more than farm worker families can afford. The result is that in some cases, these providers have stopped working for the low-income families, and are caring privately for the children of families who can afford more, says Mancera.

The La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District sometimes has trouble attracting a large pool of applicants when a new teacher is needed. The issue is affordability. Even if the teachers find something to rent on the South Coast, they know they won’t be able to put down roots.

“We have talented people who want to work at Puente and in our schools. I want them to be able to afford to live here so that they don’t have to go somewhere else,” says Mancera.

Furthermore, a lot of the families move to the South Coast and raise their kids here, but their kids are not enrolled district schools. They go to private schools on the peninsula’s Bayside.

Young, educated, talented professionals who grew up in Pescadero are learning the hard way you can’t go home again… or if you do, you can never leave.

“I know people who have graduated from college and who have a job over the hill, and they still live with family because they cannot find anything that is affordable, either here or on the other side of the hill,” adds Mancera.

Sometimes McPhee feels like there are two versions of Pescadero for two different kinds of people: tourists and the well heeled, versus residents like her.

“There’s no food store that you could buy things for affordable prices,” she says. “You always get the feeling it’s not for you.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a nice place to live – a beautiful, safe place to raise your children. But Mancera has joined hands with Puente Strategic Projects Advisor Kerry Lobel to push for solutions that work for everyone – the newcomers and those who want to stay.

One of the most obvious solutions – to construct an affordable housing complex – would help lower-income workers, but benefit middle-class residents, too. “It would alleviate some of the crisis and bring prices down,” says Mancera.

But it faces difficult obstacles, including coastal zoning and building laws that tend to favor preservation of a “pristine” viewshed over modest proposals for multi-family housing. Officials from County Supervisor Don Horsley’s office have made the issue of Coastside affordable housing a priority, and they are working closely with county staff in Planning and Building, Environmental Health, Housing and Community Development and other departments to pursue every good lead on sites for new construction.

There is a community will to find solutions, but Mancera thinks the South Coast urgently needs funding to hire someone who will interface with all stakeholders, from local farmers to state officials, to get the best projects moving forward.

Puente is proposing a nonprofit spinoff that can manage vacant housing rentals. It would handle the leases and maintenance for South Coast vacation homes that sit empty for most of the year. The partnership could help homeowners with upkeep, while also keeping some local families from going homeless when they lose a rental.

Speaking for everyone, Mancera says: “We have got to be able to do something else besides knowing the crisis exists. My current fear is that we’ll be talking about these issues again in ten years, and saying we couldn’t fix them.”

McPhee says her plan is to try to live in Pescadero indefinitely – although her husband does talk about moving out of state. She wants her kids to grow up going to Pescadero schools with the same group of lifelong friends. She wants them to feel like they belong.

“I just wish there was a way people could stay,” she says. “It’s like you don’t know how much of your soul to invest in a place if you don’t know how long you’re going to be here.”

If you would like to support Puente’s rental assistance, social support, and regional planning programs, connect here: (Donate Link)

Children are catalyst for lifelong learning for Esmeralda

Adult Education Coordinator, Charlea Binford, teaches class.

For many in the United States, completing primary schooling is not only achievable, but also expected. That, however, is not the case for many of the adult participants in Puente’s education programs. In their native country, many, if not most, participants stopped their schooling in order to financially assist their families. For those with only their primary education, and the few that come with more education, obtaining a higher level of education seems like a far-reaching goal. At Puente, however, far-reaching becomes obtainable.

Puente uses Plaza Comunitaria, in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco. The program consists of three levels of progression that teach the Spanish speaking adults to read, write and speak in their native tongue and to complete their first and secondary education. Our partnership assesses students’ current academic skills and the areas of improvement. Students work alongside a tutor to improve on the needed areas and take a final assessment. At the completion of this program students receive a diploma from the Secretary of Public Education from Mexico.

Esmeralda, a Puente participant is in the process of obtaining her secondary education through this effort. Esmeralda not only completed her primary education certificate, she is now also a student in our ESL Puente/Cañada College Class. As a mother, Esmeralda finds educating herself important in order to help her children with their education. When asked why pursuing her education was important to her, Esmeralda notes, “I finished my primary education in Mexico but I wanted to continue with my secondary education here because in the past I didn’t have the opportunity.” For Esmeralda, Puente and its partnership with Cañada College, provided her the perfect opportunity to follow with a higher degree of education, an opportunity she wasn’t able to follow in Mexico. “What’s awe inspiring about Esmeralda is how her children are the catalyst for her dream of a higher education,” says Lizeth Hernandez, Puente’s Education Director. “Esmeralda understands that ‘while nothing in life is easy,’ with hard work anyone can further their education.”

Executive Director, Rita Mancera, says “Puente has worked hard to seek financial support for adult education students through its partnership with the Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME), Silicon Valley Community Foundation and other funding sources. This support, along with childcare and transportation, removes any real or perceived barriers to furthering their education.”

Esmeralda seeks more educational opportunities to teach her children that anything is possible at any point in one’s life. Above all Esmeralda hopes that her children will achieve more than their mother. For Esmeralda, showing her children that if she can accomplish her dreams, they, too, can become professionals and reach their own dreams, is the foundation upon which she stands on. By increasing her exposure to diverse educational opportunities, Esmeralda now finds she can better assist her children with their homework. She recalls how prior to advancing her English skills she did not understand her children’s homework. Now with her added language skills; Esmeralda understands and can advise her children.

Through her educational experience at Puente, Esmeralda believes that anyone can achieve his or her dreams. She thanks Puente for the support and opportunities they provide to their participants and the multiple services they offer regarding how to be better parents, how to better teach one’s children, and the various other services available to them.

For more information about how to become a tutor for adult students, contact Ben Ranz at 650-262-4101.

To make a financial contribution to help underwrite the costs of childcare, transportation and school supplies, click here.