VOICES: NC farmworkers forced to buy low-quality meal plans from employers

This meal served as part of a meal plan paid for by North Carolina farmworkers consisted of a scant serving of beans, cheese, and bacon. (Photo courtesy of FLOC.)

Of all the exploitive working and living conditions that North Carolina farmworkers face, a bad meal plan might not sound so important. But with backbreaking, exhausting and dangerous work, and poor and uncomfortable living conditions, decent meals are critically important for migrant farmworkers to make it through the day. But farmworkers often don't get food that's anywhere near adequate.

On farms that have hired seasonal H-2A visa workers, the grower-owners — by H-2A regulation — must provide workers with a meal plan and/or a kitchen facility where workers can cook their own meals. For workers, cooking their own meal can be chaotic, with too many workers needing to use a small kitchen, little time to properly clean up, and the additional need to shop for groceries in a worker's "spare time."   

But workers cooking for themselves is often, amazingly, superior to settling for a meal plan where food selection and shopping, cooking, and serving is provided by growers or their surrogate supervisors. The reasons? First, the meal is often outlandishly priced for the quantity and quality. Meal plans typically costs between $70 to $80 per person per week. The same amount of money can feed a family of four in Mexico for two weeks.

The price makes the situation more painful for those who are dissatisfied with the meal plan, because it means they have less money to send home to their loved ones. But they have no choice. If the grower decides that a meal plan is mandatory, there's nothing workers can do.

Workers in some camps have reported that the meals are repetitive, portions are small, and the quality of food low. Some workers have taken photographic documentation of the low-quality meals, such as one "meal" that was only two slices of bologna with a side of beans. Many workers have noted they regularly get a meal consisting of foods served over the previous days, suggesting the meal is comprised of old leftovers. For those working vigorously eight-plus hours per day, in stifling heat, lack of safe, adequate food can be dangerous.

In some cases, meals are only provided on workdays, so workers aren't fed on Sundays. Instead, workers may have to eat out in the town, if they can get there. Some have found alternative methods for cooking without a kitchen, such as with open fires. With wages — and thus meals — tied to directly to employment, anyone who loses their ability to work, or where rain has limited field work for a week or more, can worry about getting a meal.

Workers with dietary limitations, such as lactose intolerance or gastritis, aren't offered alternate meals that accommodate their health requirements.

Many workers feel it's degrading and dispiriting to be deprived of space to do tasks as simple as keep juice cold, heat a frozen dinner, or boil water for instant noodles, to say nothing of trying to eat healthily. Every facility has a kitchen, but supervisors often lock the kitchens so that only they have access to them, thus protecting their meal plan arrangement. But for workers, this is a slap in the face. "Our food is sacred, it goes in our bodies to give us nourishment, we cannot eat what is just forced upon us," said a farmworker named Francisco. "We must be able to stay strong to withstand the hard labor we give our job."

Another major concern is that kitchens don't have clear sanitation measures. The Nash County Health Department has told the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) that kitchens aren't under their purview because they only inspect commercial kitchens open to the public. The division of the N.C. Department of Labor (NCDOL) that inspects migrant housing conditions has authority over kitchen sanitation but has stated they have no authority over the content of the meals themselves. And any inspections after workers arrive are entirely complaint driven, a complicated process that very few farmworkers would risk for fear of retaliation.

The Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina has filed successful NCDOL complaints on behalf of workers where there were issues with the labor camp kitchen (e.g., not enough functioning burners, not enough functioning refrigerator space, dangerous electrical, etc.). But for most farmworkers this is also a risky process that can take months or even years — sufficient time for a known complainant to be fired or blackballed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened concerns about safety and access to food. Without inspections and information about kitchens, workers can't know if the people preparing their food are taking appropriate safety measures like wearing masks. The threat of infection and the closure of businesses have restricted workers' ability to go out on Sundays when they don't receive food as part of the meal plan. "I do not ask for much," said Efrain, another North Carolina H-2A worker, "but I want my food to be clean and sanitary."

A 2013 study by researchers at Wake Forest University found significant violations in farmworker camps such as improper refrigerator temperature, cockroach and rodent infestations, contaminated water, unsanitary conditions, and holes or leaks in walls.

What can workers do? Those who are members of the North Carolina farmworker union FLOC have many more protections, and have successfully filed grievances through their collective bargaining agreement that protected their right to opt out of inadequate meal plans.

Also, almost alone among farmworker advocacy organizations and unions, FLOC places a major responsibility for poor farmworker living and working conditions on the companies that purchase growers' products. These include multinational commodity processors like Reynolds American, which relies on North Carolina tobacco, or Del Monte Foods, which buys the state's sweet potatoes.

Reynolds and the other major tobacco companies have kept the purchase price of tobacco virtually constant for the past 10 years, squeezing growers who then try to cut labor costs, one of the few costs they can control — sometimes with disastrous results for workers. FLOC's overtures to grower associations to join together to confront commodity processors and demand equitable solutions may be the only way this dilemma will be solved.