Along with 20 other farms, our farm got to participate in a pop-up COVID vaccine clinic last week. The clinic was organized by Yolo County and took place on a nearby farm. In all, 338 farmworkers got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine (so we don’t need to go back) and over 200 people returned to get their second Pfizer vaccine after a clinic at the same farm a couple of weeks ago. By the end of this month, we can rest assured that 90% of our crew is protected.
Yolo County announced its intention to vaccinate frontline workers on February 15th and started pop-up clinics on farms a few days later. These clinics are part of a landmark effort in California to bring the vaccine directly to the fields. Reports of similar pop-up clinics have come from Riverside, Monterey, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Marin, and small farmworker towns in Tulare and Fresno Counties.
These clinics are noteworthy for taking place in usually underserved areas like Dinuba, Earlimart and Porterville. Farmworkers are at high risk of getting COVID, and outbreaks have crippled the work force on farms across the country. Between Mid-July and November of last year, 13% of farmworkers in the Salinas Valley tested positive in comparison to only 5% of Californians in general. Latino food and ag workers age 18 to 65 in CA had a nearly 60% increase in mortality during 2020 compared with pre-pandemic times — that’s a very high risk factor.
Farmworkers often live in crowded, multigenerational houses, eat together in dining halls, travel to work and out to the fields in crowded vans, or work in bustling packing houses. They can have spotty internet access and may be wary of registering for government programs at large vaccination sites. Yet these workers never missed a beat when the shelter in place was announced — they are the first step in the chain that gets food to everyone’s table. For all of these reasons, the prioritization of farm workers and the on-farm clinics to deliver those vaccines make a tremendous amount of sense. When was the last time that you saw farmworkers get preferential treatment for anything?
California is ahead of the curve in terms of farm worker vaccines. In states like Georgia, Texas, New York and Florida, farmworkers are not yet in the priority groups authorized to receive the shots. Although the CDC recommended that farm workers should be prioritized along with other essential workers, the CDC also allowed states to set their own priorities and some states are requiring documentation of legal residency which is a good way to disqualify many farm workers. In my view, if ever there was a clear need to set aside the requirement for documentation, this is the time.
With the shortage of vaccines (which hopefully is going to become a thing of the past) and the limitations in logistical preparation, health officials everywhere are grappling with questions of equity. In California, where 40% of the vaccines are supposed to be directed to disadvantaged areas, there are still inequities. By February 19th, 24% of African Americans over the age of 65 in Los Angeles had received a vaccine, compared to 43% of white residents in the same age bracket. One of our farmers market crew members, an 80-year old African American without a car or smart phone, needed a COVID test a few months ago. He walked all the way to a test site and was turned away because he didn’t have an appointment. In that same time frame, all of the other members of the farmers market crew (all white) were easily able to get tested.
The cruelties of this disease are everywhere to see. One of our employees is now 65 years old. She was able to get an appointment for a vaccine the day before her 65th birthday (they were hard to get and that was the day that was open). When she arrived, she was turned away because she was not yet 65. Tragically, she since has developed COVID. When an employee gets COVID, it has a significant and wide-reaching impact. Co-workers have to be quarantined and tested. Tests need to be timed correctly with respect to exposure to the sick individual. Housing has to be found for people who don’t want to take the chance of infecting others in their homes. The work of all the quarantined people has to be covered by others. The sick person has to be monitored and cared for. Anxieties need to be assuaged and questions need to be answered.
We have treated Full Belly like a bubble with respect to COVID. We have restricted access to visitors and severely limited social activities. Within our Full Belly bubble, there are smaller bubbles — the kitchen bubble, the packing shed bubble, the intern bubble, the office bubble, and several other crew bubbles. We have tried to keep the bubbles separate, but they do tend to bump into each other. The same is true out on planet Earth. None of us are really in bubbles that can be kept isolated from the rest of humanity.
After taking so many precautions for a year, it will be some time before we are ready to lift too many of the restrictions, despite the vaccinations. We intend to stay the course that we have established, maybe with a few small adjustments. We are hugely grateful that our crew has been vaccinated, and hope that all others across the globe, who want to be vaccinated, will be able to get it done soon. Meanwhile we hope that you stay healthy and eat your veggies!
Blessings on your meals,