Program Builds Backyard Gardens For Migrant Workers, Vermont's Most Food-Insecure

Jul 4, 2016

Vermont's immigrant farm workers experience hunger and food insecurity at a higher rate than the rest of the population. That’s especially true in Franklin County near the Canadian border, where many still avoid leaving their farms because of the presence of federal immigration enforcement agents.

One small program is helping to make a difference, one garden at a time.

Hidden from the road, behind the trailer where Enrique lives, is a garden full of tomatoes, black beans and herbs. (To protect his identity, we are not using Enrique's last name.)

“The two little plants are habanero chiles,” he said pointing to them.

The garden was started with help from Huertas (Spanish for garden), a community-based program.

Enrique has had a lot of success as a gardener. 

“I couldn’t figure out what to do with everything last year. I was giving tomatoes to the employers, but still we lost a lot of the tomatoes — there was so many tomatoes,” he said through an interpreter.

This garden was started by another man who lived in this house. When Enrique moved in, he started helping out. Now he lives alone but the garden is still going.

“One, because I like it. Two, because it benefits me once there’s something to harvest. I don’t buy the vegetables in the grocery store,” he said.

Getting to the store isn’t easy. He can’t drive here, so he asks his employers for a ride.

"One, because I like it. Two, because it benefits me once there’s something to harvest. I don’t buy the vegetables in the grocery store." - Enrique

A few miles away, Eva says she and her husband and young daughter never go to the store.

“It’s still not ever really safe,” she said.

“We make a list of things we need, we give it to the boss and he goes and buys those things every 15 days, or more if he can. But they come and they’re not good quality or past ripe, they’re not great,” Eva said.

This is the fourth or fifth house where the Huertas volunteers have helped this family start a garden, and they have become an important source of fresh food, and for foods farm workers can’t find in the grocery story.

“Food security is about a lot of things,” said Teresa Mares, the co-director of Huertas, and an anthropology professor at the University of Vermont.

“The way that we typically understand it is that food insecurity is a result of poverty," Mares says. "What we’re seeing is that farm workers often will have the money to buy food, but it’s about having that broader access, whether it’s transportation or access to culturally-familiar foods.”

The Huertas gardens help to ensure that workers get access to fresh produce regularly throughout the growing season.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Food insecurity for farm workers is higher than the Vermont average, and it’s more severe in border counties.

Mares says culturally-familiar foods are also important to people so far from home.

“People being able to cook foods and have flavors that remind them of home is very important,” she said. “For families it’s been a way for parents to share some of that with their kids when they might be living very far away from their home villages.”

"For families it's been a way for parents to share some of that with their kids when they might be living very far away from their home villages." — Teresa Mares, Huertas co-director

Huertas began somewhat informally, with a few extra plants handed out in spring, said Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, co-director of Huertas. She works with farm workers for UVM Extension’s Bridges to Health program. 

“I would say our most important role is being the facilitator of access to the starts and seeds and supporting communication with employers to make sure the plot can be used, or if it needs to be expanded, or occasionally around compost,” she said.

As the project has grown, they’ve reached out to commercial growers to donate plants, and have begun to grow plants and buy seeds for herbs that wouldn’t normally be grown in Vermont.

Eva pulls rue from her garden. Huertas is increasingly trying to grow plants such as papalo, epazote and rue that are familiar to workers. To protect her identity, we are not showing Eva's face or sharing her last name.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

“The UVM greenhouse really took on a lot of the herbs — the papalo, the rue, epazote, the things that commercial growers wouldn’t necessarily grow on their own, so specialty hot peppers as well,” she said.

Huertas operates on a shoestring budget, with some grant money and lots of donated materials and volunteer effort. It serves almost 30 households, and each adult contributes a small amount of money to purchase seeds.

Eva works in her garden before her shift milking cows. It’s a reason to get outside, even on this rainy day.

“It’s difficult in the winter — there aren’t vegetables. And now in the summer we’re already getting radish, cilantro and lettuce,” she said, reaching down to pick some rue, which she uses for tea.

“In Mexico we use it when we have a fear, here in our chest,” she said pointing. “That’s how we use it here too."