I’ve been thinking a lot about the wildfires raging across the Pacific Northwest these past several days. Being from Seattle, and as someone with family in both Washington and California, I’ve heard firsthand how dire the situation is.
My best friend texted me yesterday and said her lungs were in pain, but she didn’t have the option to call out from work. She needed the money, and the company she works for refused to close their doors, despite the fact that the National Weather Service has rated the air quality in Seattle as “hazardous”— the most severe level of pollution. So she had to stand outside, waiting to ride the city bus, which has poor air circulation to begin with. But when she arrived at work, she got to go inside. A whole swath of workers we rely on to keep our country fed don’t have that option.
We depend on food grown in West Coast states like those currently being ravaged by wildfires, particularly California, which according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, supplies more than two-thirds of our country’s nuts and fruits and more than one-third of our country’s vegetables. But we don’t necessarily depend on the state, we depend on its workers, a large percentage — some estimates stand at around 70% — are undocumented, meaning they don’t the have paperwork stating they’re in the U.S. legally.
Many undocumented workers depend on jobs in the agricultural field because they’re frequently seasonal and often because large farms will hire them knowing they can be paid less because of their immigration status. And unlike my friend’s job, working in a field cannot be done inside.
Farmworkers now face a double-threat to their health: a pandemic and wildfires. That’s why I felt a pang in my heart this weekend when I picked up a box of California-grown strawberries at the grocery store. Someone stood out in the brutal heat and dangerous air to pick those so I could enjoy my morning yogurt and berries. And here I am, many miles away from “hazardous” level air quality, with the ability to work inside.
For many of us who live in more urban areas, we don’t often think about where — or who — our food comes from. But now, more than ever, the health and safety of farm workers, an already underpaid and underprotected community, are in jeopardy.
So today, I’m donating what I can to the United Farm Workers Foundation, a group that works to protect the rights of farm workers. And if you can, I encourage you to do the same. Farm workers are the backbone of our food supply chain and without them, we could not survive. Now they need our help to do the same.