The day Reyna was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything changed.
Instead of working her job at Kruger’s, a California company that grows and packages pickles and peppers for distribution to grocery stores and restaurants, she began spending her days in doctor’s offices and hospitals.
Her husband of 26 years, Zenon, quit his job as a field farmworker to care for her and transport her to treatment. With five children between the ages of 15 and 22 in their household, plus a three-month-old grandson, money got very tight, very quickly, as they fell behind on bills and watched the stability they had worked so hard to create begin to disappear.
“We were struggling,” Zenon shares in Spanish through a translator. “It was a challenging time and a lot of traveling back and forth, trying to get paperwork approved” for government assistance, such as Medicaid and CalFresh (SNAP).
Everything changed again, this time for the better, when they got connected with Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton and the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program (FFWR). The referral came from El Concilio California, which provides resources for marginalized and low-income communities. Assisted by Catholic Charities staff, Reyna, her husband and two of their children applied for and received grant relief.
Essential Money for Essential Needs
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) FFWR grant was intended for farmworkers and meatpacking workers who helped to keep U.S. household refrigerators and pantries stocked during the pandemic. The funds specifically targeted hard-to-reach and underserved populations, often in rural areas, and were meant to offset costs incurred during the pandemic.
Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) was one of 15 organizations chosen to facilitate FFWR grant funding, in recognition of the network’s proven track record of assisting this population and its strong partnerships with worker-serving organizations.
“Not every nonprofit has such a direct relationship with farmworkers,” says Jane Stenson, vice president for food and nutrition and poverty reduction. “I’ve been at CCUSA for a long time, and I know this is a population that some of our agencies serve daily.”
CCUSA distributed funds among 12 network agencies in seven states for qualified farmworkers and meatpacking workers, who received one-time payments of $600.
“We applied for the USDA grant because we know that this is a high-need population [that], quite frankly, kept food on our tables during COVID,” says Stenson.
When the pandemic struck, many Americans went into lockdown for months. Workers who were deemed “essential” did not have that luxury, though, and instead carried on with their normal work obligations and routines despite the health risks. These included low-income farmworkers and meatpacking workers, many of whom are immigrants. Their continued work at the height of the pandemic ensured that Americans still had access to food despite COVID closures.
To provide some context, while immigrants make up about 17 percent of the U.S. workforce, they are disproportionately represented in the U.S. food supply chain, including 37 percent of all meat processing workers, 39 percent of food processing workers and 48 percent of general agricultural workers (Migration Policy Institute).
For Reyna and her family, who are natives of Guerrero, Mexico, the grant money was essential, enabling them to pay the bills they were behind on and to buy food and other personal necessities. Not only that, but the grant proved to be an entry point to other support services from Catholic Charities Stockton.
The agency staff worked with Reyna and her family as they applied for state assistance programs that will help them pay their energy bills and afford more healthy and nutritious food. This type of paperwork can be overwhelming in an applicant’s first language, let alone a second. Ana Guzman, the nutrition assistance services program manager at Catholic Charities Stockton, is bilingual and oversees the distribution of 500 USDA-funded farmworker grants.
“I want to emphasize the importance of allowing individuals who … truly make an impact in our economy and are part of our community to have access to this type of benefit,” says Guzman.
Catholic Charities was a lifesaver for Reyna and Zenon, who call the services they received “excelente.” Previously, they wondered if there were programs or agencies that would assist them.
“But we were lucky enough to get connected to an agency where they were very attentive,” says Zenon. They also share that their Catholic faith is very important to them, and the foundation they rely on during hard times.
Eliminating Barriers to Resources
The 12 Catholic Charities agencies that distributed USDA grants found that clients used the money for a multitude of purposes. Some, like Reyna and her family, paid overdue bills or bought healthier food.
Rosa and Dionicia, two mothers living in Washington state, spent the money on rent, groceries and diapers and clothes for their three young children, ages one to five. The grant money also went to car repairs, an absolute necessity, since farmworkers move throughout the harvesting season and go where the work is. It also helped tide them over when work was in short supply.
“In California, a lot of the rains they experienced in April and May kept people from working for a couple of months, because the fields were saturated, so they couldn’t farm,” says Stenson. “In some cases, the grant helped replace a portion of the income lost over those months.”
Because the local Catholic Charities agencies are so connected to their communities, they did not need to do much advertising or promotion of the new grant opportunity. The news spread quickly through the farmworker communities by word of mouth.
That’s how Rosa and Dionicia heard about the grants, which they applied for through Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. Both of their husbands work picking fruit, including blackberries, blueberries and cherries. But it was harder to find work this year, they say through a translator, and both women stay home to care for their children.
“This type of job is unstable, we have to go from here to there, to other places, wherever the work is. We have been struggling to find a place to live. It’s not easy to find low-income, affordable housing for workers like us,” says Rosa.
Rosa and Dionicia speak Mixteco, an indigenous language common in southern Mexico.
“We recently found a room close to where my husband works at the moment,” adds Rosa. “He is the only one working and I take care of the kids in the house. We used to work together.”
Since receiving the USDA grant money, both women and their families have taken advantage of other support at Catholic Community Services, including the emergency clothes closet, food pantry and legal services, and say they are very thankful for the assistance.
The Western Washington agency has a Farmworker Center, which offers adult education classes in literacy, finance, sewing and computers, as well as community events and leadership training, and art classes for children. In many cases, it is women who come to the Farmworker Center, while the men work in the fields. The services at the center offer the women and their families support and consistency, and the adult education classes, including a certificate program in Spanish literacy and resumé assistance through WorkSource, make them feel more empowered.
Marta Martinez Olivera is the center’s program coordinator.
“I come from a background of farm work. My family and myself are indigenous folks from Oaxaca, Mexico,” says Olivera, who is one of several staff members with farmworker experience. “To have that background, we’re really connected to our community. We identify with them and understand what they’re going through and what’s happening in their everyday life.”
Since it can be difficult for the farmworkers to find stable housing during the work season, the USDA grant checks – more than 900 of them — were disbursed directly from the Farmworker Center. Coming to the center to pick up a check often meant that the farmworkers could avail themselves of other services, too.
“We’re super, super thankful to have received the funds from USDA. We’ve gotten so many new clients that otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten to, because of the funds,” says Olivera, noting that the emergency clothes closet is often the starting point to establish a trusting relationship that can lead to referrals to other resources and community partners.
“Whether it be scheduling with Legal Aid, the food bank or even helping them read and understand materials from the hospital,” says Olivera, “we facilitate the process so they can have the resources they need.”
Catholic Community Services serves approximately 3,200 people each year through the Farmworker Center, most of them Mexican and Central American Indigenous. Members of the Catholic Charities staff speak both Spanish and Mixteco, the latter of which is not as commonly spoken in the U.S. as Spanish.
“A lot of our clients are dealing with a language barrier. They speak Mixteco, so that makes it really difficult for them to go out and seek other resources,” says Olivera.
A National Model?
The availability of assistance in their native language is a lifeline for the farmworkers in the Western Washington region. And the work of Catholic Community Services has had such a positive impact that CCUSA is looking to them as a model for other agencies that assist farmworkers and meatpacking workers.
The Archdiocese of Seattle and Catholic Community Services currently operate two farmworker centers, as well as housing locations for farmworkers. During the pandemic, they shared information about the COVID vaccine and received funding to help farmworkers pay rent and avoid eviction.
“Their work has gotten the attention of some county and state entities that have a hard time reaching the farmworker population,” says Stenson. “Having a place that becomes a meeting ground for the farmworkers is helpful. So, we’d like to ... give our other agencies ideas. Because a lot of our agencies have a space that could be a farmworker center or housing. Western Washington could be a model.”
Catholic Charities agencies in seven states — California, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon and Washington — participated in the grant. The USDA grant has not only provided new avenues for further collaboration between agencies to support farmworkers, but has also fostered new relationships with other entities that serve this population.
“The grant has brought us into collaboration with other nonprofits that we’ve not worked with intentionally at the national level before,” says Stenson, including the National Center for Farmworker Health and United Farm Workers. “It’s been a really positive experience to learn from them, to learn about their work.”
The need among these workers is so great, she says, and consumers may not realize how much depends upon them to keep the nationwide food supply moving.