New Farmworker Health Survey offers a dire prognosis for our poorest residents.

A survey by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services has found that farmworkers here experience poorer health, more extreme poverty, and higher rates of diabetes and binge drinking than the rest of the general population. 

While the surveys were completed anonymously, it’s common knowledge that the majority of farmworkers live in the main population centers of Santa Rosa and Petaluma, according to Brian Vaughn, a director of the division of health policy, planning, and evaluation at the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. “They are a permanent part of the community,” he said.

Approximately 293 farmworkers were surveyed between September 2013 and January 2014 in an effort funded by a Community Transformation Grant through the Affordable Care Act. Survey responders were 91 percent male and 95 percent Latino or Hispanic. They are young—median age, 37—and uneducated, with over half having received no education beyond ninth grade.

Perhaps most poignantly, most of them serve an industry that grossed some $600 million in 2012 by picking the wine grapes that make fortunes for others.

The purpose of the survey, according to a summary from the Vaughn’s department, was to find out more about the health needs, and most importantly, the health disparities between farmworkers and the general population. A draft report of the results was released in October 2015.

A collaboration between the county and California Human Development, the resulting Farmworker Health Survey (FHS) was prompted by the data found in the recently-released A Portrait of Sonoma County report, which used census information to log inequities and forecast outcomes for all Sonoma County residents. Not surprisingly, our poorest neighbors are predicted to fare the worst—today, and throughout the trajectory of their lives.

The ironies revealed are dismal.

According to the FHS, the very workers who grow and harvest our food are 17 percent more likely to experience food insecurity when compared with even the poorest Sonoma County non-agricultural residents.

While 30 percent of those surveyed received housing from their employers, farmworkers overall are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, with a reported 67 percent living in this condition.

Moreover, farmworkers and their families pay an unsustainable 30-54 percent of an average $24,000 family income on housing. (Federal recommendations are that housing should be no more than 30 percent of income.) Single and childless ag workers average about $19,000 a year; non-farmerworkers without families typically pull down $36,000 in Sonoma County.

Ordinary health stats were no better. At 15 percent, rates of diabetes among surveyed farmworkers—again, whose median age is just 37—were three times higher than the 5 percent average rate for Sonoma County adults. And while 18 percent of the U.S. adult population reports indulging in binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks in one session for males), the rate for Sonoma County farmworkers stands high at 47 percent, nearly half of the surveyed population. 

And that says nothing of preventative care or preparing for illness. While all Sonoma County children are eligible for health insurance, only 77 percent of farmworkers’ children are insured.

Things are worse for their parents. After adjusting for age, only about 30 percent of adult farmworkers in the county have any health insurance at all. Comparatively, 86 percent of Sonoma County adults are insured. This disparity stems, in part, from the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, they work, with 1 in 10 of those surveyed reporting an onsite injury or poisoning during the previous year; the majority of those cases happened while workers labored under the oversight of a contractor, not an owner or grower.

Due to a variety of reasons, including tightened immigration restrictions and a growing ag economy, the migratory work patterns of agricultural workers have changed dramatically in the last decade; a full 88 percent of farmworkers in Sonoma County live here on a permanent basis.

“The agricultural industry is important here, and we know we have workers who are living here with their families,” said Vaughn, who is part of the team that developed the FHS and ensuing report. “It tends to pay better to work in the wine industry in California than to be an apple picker in Washington. A lot of people like their work and want to stay here, plus they are employed full-time, or at least what’s considered full-time for an agricultural worker.”

Many farmworkers who have settled in Sonoma County permanently, of course, have children who attend the local public schools.

“This is our future workforce,” Vaughn stresses. “The majority of kids enrolled in kindergarten are now Latino. This is the future of our county. It’s important that we ensure their success and get to know their health needs moving forward.”

Health officials, according to Vaughn, will use the survey results to devise ways to eliminate health disparities through forthcoming farmworker-specific health interventions. And with that, they will possibly help to ensure that every Sonoma County resident, including those whose sweat equity bolsters the agricultural industry, has the opportunity to live a healthy and long life—no matter their immigration status.

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