When a farmworker and her children were discovered living in a decommissioned walk-in freezer due to lack of housing, Marty Miller, executive director of the Office of Rural Development and Farm Worker Housing in Yakima, WA, was dismayed — but not surprised.

“Unfortunately, not surprised,” Miller told Food Safety News. “I had already heard or seen so many stories like that. Of farmworkers renting crawl space under houses, of a hose leading into a garage being rented out to farmworkers, of fruit pickers camped under bridges or along ditches, of families living in sheds, cars, or vans.”

In many cases, overcrowding is common and can trigger communicable diseases, among them foodborne diseases such as Norovirus, E-coli, Listeria, Salmonella, and Hepatitis A. Faced with a severe housing shortage, workers often pile into substandard quarters, many of them lacking even the basics for keeping clean.

Over the years, media outlets have carried countless stories about squalid farmworker housing conditions across the nation, lamenting the lack of basic sanitation and hygiene necessities such as clean water, bathing and laundry facilities. Overcrowding is typically cited in these descriptions of farmworker housing.

Part of the reason for stories like this, Miller said, is that farmworker housing is such a common problem, especially during harvest time.

“Small rural communities see a huge influx of migrant workers then,” he said, referring to farmworkers who travel from place to place picking crops as opposed to seasonal farmworkers who live in a community year-round.

According to the “Yakima Farmworker Housing Plan, 2011-2016,” despite progress made in providing more farmworker housing in the bountiful farming region of Eastern Washington, approximately 65,475 farmworkers and family members in Yakima County do not have a safe, affordable home.

Referring to the seasonal nature of farm work and therefore the low annual wages farmworkers earn (more than 50 percent of their wages fall below the poverty line), Peter O’Driscoll, project director of the Equitable Food Initiative, put it this way: “None of us should be surprised that many farmworkers are living in deplorable conditions.”

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made, although most of it has been made in housing for seasonal farmworkers who live year-round in a community.

For example, some of the homes built under Self-Help Enterprises in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California have two, three or four bedrooms and sometimes even two bathrooms. Those who qualify to live in these low-income units must work in agriculture.

“Sometimes it’s the best housing in town,” said Tom Collinshaw, CEO and president of the organization.

But cases like this are still the exception. And it certainly doesn’t hold true for temporary housing for migrant workers.

Who are the farmworkers?

Farmworkers are generally divided into two categories — those who work seasonally and live year-round in a community and those who follow the crops. The first group is typically referred to as seasonal workers; the second, migrant workers.

According to the most recent National Agricultural Worker Survey (2007-2009), it is estimated there are more than 3 million farmworkers in the United States, with 42 percent being migrants and 58 percent being seasonal workers.

Migrant housing

Migrant housing ranges “across the board” from none at all to labor camps or other housing arrangements that sometimes, and sometimes don’t, meet all state and federal codes. On Washington state’s website about migrant housing, the “ground” is listed as one of the places migrant workers stay.

According the the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “comprehensive, reliable data on farmworkers were unavailable or inconsistent, making it difficult to evaluate living and working conditions … .”

While some migrant farmworkers live in licensed labor camps (which by law must meet state or federal regulations) provided by farmers, many do not, especially since many farmers closed down their labor camps back in the 1990s when stricter regulations were set.

By law, farmers are not required to provide housing for their workers.

However, some farmers in areas where farm labor was (and is) in short supply have bitten the bullet and invested in improving existing housing on their farms or built new housing. This has given them the competitive edge over other farmers when it comes to attracting workers.

Even so, farmworker housing is typically in short supply, especially for migrant workers. Yet the work is there, the crops need to be picked, and the workers — often a flood of workers — show up. They come in, pick the crop, and move on to the next location. Once they’re gone, it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

What does this have to do with the consumer?

While many articles and programs have featured the sometimes abysmal conditions that some migrant farmworkers live in, most people don’t see any direct connection to them. But that’s changing now that food safety has become such a concern among consumers.

Here are some things consumers might wonder about: Do the places where farmworkers stay have clean water — or even running water? Do they have showers with hot and cold water so farmworkers can bathe after coming in from the fields? Are there any washing machines or driers — or enough of them — so they can wash their clothes and come to work in clean clothing? How overcrowded is the housing? And how does the lack of sanitation and the overcrowding contribute to communicable diseases?

Consider this fact offered by Equitable Food Initiative’s O’Driscoll: “Often, the first and last hands to touch the strawberries that are picked and packed into clam shells in the field and sold to consumers are the farmworkers’ hands.”

That can also be true for a range of other fresh produce such as blueberries, cherries and salad greens.

Then, too, strong consumer demand for organic and fresh produce has more growers selling into the organic and fresh-to-consumer markets, which often require hand harvesting. Consumer demand for perfect, blemish-free fruits and vegetables also calls for more hand labor.

“Consumers absolutely have a stake in farmworker housing,” Self-Help Enterprises’ Collinshaw told Food Safety News. “The conditions the farmworkers live in can have a lot to do with the safety of the food on their tables.”

Yet most consumers don’t see it that way. In fact, most consumers don’t see the farmworkers at all, except perhaps from a distance or from their car window as they travel past fields being harvested.

Farmworker house in the San Joaquin Valley of CA. (Photo courtesy of Self-Help Enterprises in Visalia, CA.)

And they certainly don’t see the inside of the inadequate and typically overcrowded temporary living quarters where many farmworkers stay if farmers don’t have housing to offer, or the tents, sheds, garages, campers and cars where they spend their nights if they can’t find any housing.

“Influencing the health and safety of workers who may be the only people to handle produce before it reaches the consumer has a very important and significant impact on the health and safety of everyone who consumes fresh produce,” says a sample food-safety plan from Penn State Extension.

Included in the plan are field basics such as when and how farmworkers should wash their hands.

From there the plan lists some of the things farmers should train their workers to do and expect them to do. For example, they must wear reasonably clean clothes, and they shouldn’t handle produce if they’re ill. Farmers who see that their workers’ clothes are visibly soiled should require them to change into cleaner clothes before starting work.

The reason for this is that farmworkers’ soiled clothing can harbor foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and Norovirus, which can be transferred to the produce they’re picking. This, in turn, can make people ill, especially the very young, the elderly and pregnant women who eat the contaminated produce. Foodborne diseases can also kill people who become infected with the pathogens.

As for sick employees, it’s only logical that that they shouldn’t be handling produce that will be eaten raw. Yet if farmworkers don’t have access to housing that offers basic sanitation such as clean water and adequate bathing and laundry facilities, it could be just about impossible to come to work in clean clothing. And if farmworkers living in overcrowded conditions report to work with communicable diseases — often because they don’t get paid sick leave and need to work to earn money for their families — that’s a food-safety issue as well. Most of the people interviewed for this article said they hadn’t really thought about the link between farmworker housing and food safety. “Even in my line of work, I never connected the dots between the two,” said Jim Praechtl, CEO of Clearstream, a company that produces environmentally friendly antimicrobial products and services. With a focus on antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as MRSA, in addition to other bacterial and viral contaminants, Clearstream has developed a good overview of the situation. “Wherever there’s a transient population and where the populations are condensed, such as in hospitals, schools, transportation and even farmworker housing, it’s a double whammy,” Praechtl said. Bobbi Ryder, president and CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health, was quick to point to the link between farmworker housing and the consumer. “If the food the workers touched will be compromised by their compromised housing conditions, then we, as consumers, need to care about this,” she told Food Safety News. “As consumers, we have to think more broadly. We have to think about the lives of the people who pick and handle our food. We need to realize that those beautiful displays of food we see in the stores don’t just appear there by magic.” When asked what sort of housing farmworkers need when it comes to the farm-to-table food-safety chain, Ryder’s answer was simple and to the point: “They need the same things that you and I need,” she said. “Clean running water for drinking and bathing, access to washers and driers so when they come out of the field after a hard day’s work they can wash their clothes, enough space so communicable diseases aren’t a problem.” Like Ryder, Gustavo Ramos, recently retired director of the Skagit County Housing Authority, said that it’s in a consumer’s self-interest to care about the housing in which farmworkers are living He told Food Safety News that he’s seen plenty of cases “where it’s impossible for farmworkers to live a healthy lifestyle.”

“This is a national issue, but people are not aware of it,” he said. “All consumers should be concerned. This is a population that provides food for their tables. “

Debra Fisher, program director for migrant housing with Washington state’s health department, said that although there’s no data on how much housing is out there, in her opinion, “There’s a migrant housing crisis statewide.”

“It’s an ongoing issue that we won’t be able to solve right away,” she said.

On the consumer front, Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said that the relationship between farmworker housing and food safety “is a link that some consumers are just now realizing.”

“But I don’t think the link is clear,” he said, pointing out that the health of the workers can affect the safety of the food. “Unsanitary conditions can spread diseases, and those can spread into the fields.”

Elizabeth Bihn at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science said that although she can’t remember hearing about any recalls or outbreaks directly attributable to field workers, farmworkers play an important part in what she referred to as “the continuum of food safety in the entire system.” One of the challenges, she noted, is that even as there’s nothing uniform about growing produce, the same is true about farmworker housing. Bihn has worked with extensively with farmers and farmworkers alike to improve food-safety practices. “As we move down this food-safety road and farmers face added pressures, we’re tripping across all sorts of challenges,” she said. “We know that it’s important to have healthy people working on farms because healthy people don’t pass on diseases. We’re realizing that produce safety stretches not only to the farm but also to the personal lives of farmworkers. It’s clear that inadequate farmworker housing is one of the challenges in this.”

What can we do?

Ramos, former director of the Skagit County Housing Authority, said people need to understand that they can’t really put all of the blame on the farmers. “They have a business to run,” he said. “They’re not in the business of housing. It’s a public responsibility to ensure that there are adequate laws for workforce housing.” Farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community in Northwest Washington, would agree. She said that if people want local agriculture, the community needs to take some responsibility for farmworker housing. “Why dump all of the responsibility on the farmer?” she asked. “It comes down to the lack of responsibility on the part of everyone. If consumers want a safe, clean product, this is part of what they need to do.” No other business is expected to provide housing for its employees, pointed out Mike Youngquist, a recently retired long-time farmer and board member of the Office of Rural Development and Farmworker Housing, He said that if the public wants growers to build housing for migrants, the public needs to put some money into it. He said a typical unit at a labor camp in his area in Western Washington costs $40,000 to $50,000 if built from scratch. Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said that in some cases, farmers have been (and are) part of the solution, and, in the past five years, have put $5 million into farmworker housing in Washington state. One project his association has been involved in, Ringold Seasonal Farmworker Housing in Eastern Washington, allows farmers to rent a bed for $8 a night for their workers. Workers can also lease the beds on their own. A large free washer and drier is provided in every room, which serves eight workers. Being licensed, there are enough showers for the workers and overcrowding is not an issue.

Several agencies cooperated to make the development possible. The U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, donated land to Franklin County Farm Bureau, which, in turn, leased the land to the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Ryder, president of the National Center for Farmworker Health, pointed to the potential of communities to bring about change. She compared what communities can do to what they have already done to set up community health centers for migrants. “Citizens come together to help provide migrants with health care,” she said. “We as a community apply for seed money (from the federal government and other sources) for this.” She said health care centers for migrants are like farmworker housing. “It isn’t going to miraculously spring up. It takes community effort.”