Agricultural workers clean carrot crops of weeds amid an outbreak of COVID-19 at a farm near Arvin, California, April 3, 2020, photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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(The RAND Blog)

Forgotten on the Frontlines of the Food Supply Chain

Amid an outbreak of COVID-19, agricultural workers clean carrot crops of weeds at a farm near Arvin, California, April 3, 2020

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

by Susan L. Marquis

April 3, 2020

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all coming to recognize a new class of essential first responders: those who keep the supply chains going.

In the food supply, farmworkers are these first responders. The federal government officially declared them to be part of the “critical infrastructure workforce” with a “special responsibility to maintain [a] normal work schedule.” Guest workers, who come from other countries to harvest fruits and vegetables, have been declared exempt from travel restrictions. In California, farmworkers are exempt from government orders to shelter-in-place and other measures to stop the spread of the virus. The same will likely be true in Florida.

The working and living conditions of farmworkers make practicing social distancing, self-isolation, or quarantine impossible. These workers generally live in unimaginably crowded conditions, 10 to 12 people in single-wide trailers, 5 or 6 in one-room cinderblock bunkhouses, or in encampments scattered around agricultural areas such as Napa Valley. There is no room where an infected worker could self-isolate.

Once one occupant is infected, there is nothing to stop the spread of the virus to his or her housemates. They are dry tinder in a viral wildfire's path.

Most farmworkers do not own vehicles, traveling to the fields in overcrowded vans or buses. They also live in rural areas with limited access to hospitals or health services. In much of Florida, hospitals are concentrated on the coasts, serving retirement communities full of seniors at high risk of developing complications if infected with the new coronavirus.

It may be too late for prevention or containment among farmworkers. But without action the human toll will be tragic and the effect on our food supply will be critical failure.

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It may be too late for prevention or containment among farmworkers. But without action the human toll will be tragic and the effect on our food supply will be critical failure.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and state governments must include farmworkers and agricultural communities in their emergency response plans.

Public health services in rural communities are already stretched thin, but support from federal and state agencies could help to establish field hospitals in agricultural areas. Temporary housing might at least get farmworkers out of overcrowded quarters. Farms and work crews could deploy more vehicles or transport workers in smaller groups. Handwashing stations could be scattered liberally throughout the fields, at the bus stops, and in the farmworker encampments.

Americans have rallied around health care workers, raising concerns about the masks, gloves, and other equipment needed to protect doctors, nurses, and health workers. We must do the same for those working on the frontlines of our nation's food supply.


Susan Marquis is dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School and the author of the 2017 book “I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won.”

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.