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Why the People Harvesting Californians’ Food Can’t Afford It

Domitila Alvarez in front of her house in Salinas, Calif., earlier this month. Wesaam Al-Badry

April 30, 2020

SALINAS — It was 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday when Domitila Alvarez, 52, set down her cutting tools and walked from the broccoli fields to the crowded company bus taking the workers back to town.

Ms. Alvarez did her best to protect herself before boarding. She wound a white bandanna tight over her face, leaving just a sliver for her eyes. She pulled on two pairs of gloves — a latex pair and then a cloth pair. “The truth is,” Ms. Alvarez said, “we all ride in fear.”

Yet catching the coronavirus is not her only worry, or even her main worry. More draining, she said, is the nagging worry of whether she and her daughter will have enough to eat.

“The biggest insecurity right now is from food,” she said.

Ms. Alvarez makes $13.50 an hour, and having enough money for food is always a struggle. It has long been an open scandal that so many of the roughly 91,000 farm workers who labor in and around Salinas Valley — “The Salad Bowl of the World” — find it difficult to afford the very food they harvest.

But the forces unleashed by the novel coronavirus pandemic have combined to deepen this particular wound. When Ms. Alvarez goes to the grocery store, she finds that panic buyers have already picked the shelves clean of cooking oil, corn flour and the other inexpensive basics she relies upon to cook the burritos that keep her going through workdays that routinely stretch beyond 10 hours.

The local food bank might offer some relief, but it closes at 4:30 p.m., long before Ms. Alvarez stepped off the company bus on this day.

Melissa Kendrick, the food bank’s executive director, said, “We have always had an alarming need.” But nothing like this. Its emergency food distributions have quadrupled since the state ordered all nonessential workers to shelter in place last month.

Off the bus, Ms. Alvarez headed to a parking lot in Salinas where the United Farm Workers and the U.F.W. Foundation were handing out bags of food to hundreds of laborers, something they began doing weekly as the outbreak worsened. “A lot of them don’t get to have enough food on their tables,” Leydy Rangel, a spokeswoman for the foundation, said.

It was after 6 p.m. when Ms. Alvarez made it home. She threw her work clothes into a bag to avoid contaminating the house, took a shower and then began cooking dinner for her daughter, Diana Barreto, 22, who is among the masses of newly laid-off retail clerks.

The two rent a room in a three-bedroom house they share with Ms. Alvarez’s sister, brother-in-law and their two children. Dinner on the stove, Ms. Alvarez set about preparing lunch for the next day. She almost always makes bean, potato or nopales cactus burritos, adding beef sparingly. The burritos are often tomorrow’s dinner, too, eaten in the field during her last afternoon break.

Ms. Alvarez does her best to keep enough beans and potatoes on hand to bulk up their meals as the month goes on. She and her daughter now spend more time searching markets, driving to food banks, rationing what’s in the fridge and worrying about tomorrow. “I have to keep an eye on the food we have so that it could last a few more days,” she said.

Ms. Alvarez came to California 30 years ago from Michoacán, Mexico, and found work in the strawberry fields. In the years since, she has moved from crop to crop, wherever working conditions were a little better. Her current job offers three days of paid sick leave, which is why she seizes every opportunity she can to use the hand sanitizers now being provided in the fields.

“I have to take care of myself more because we don’t know what might happen,” she said. “If I get sick, I will have to stop working, the food will run out and I won’t have money to pay the rent.”

Although Ms. Alvarez’s job in the food chain is considered essential, she knows that because of her undocumented status she will not get the $1,200 in relief money being distributed to individuals by the federal government. (Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, has announced that undocumented workers will get up to $500 from the state.)

It all leaves Ms. Alvarez feeling vulnerable — as if every threat she faces is somehow intertwined and impossible to fully escape. “I have no other future other than the one I make in the fields,” she said.

By 9 p.m. Ms. Alvarez is ready for sleep. Her day begins again at 5.

Production Staff & Crew

Wesaam Al-Badry ( 2020 )


Lulu Orozco Perez ( 2020 )