‘Chewing the Fat: Racial Justice and Food’ lecture examines farmworker food security in the northern borderlands

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Anthropologist Teresa Mares noted that, because of their closeness to the Canadian border, many migrant Latino/a dairy workers in Vermont are reluctant to leave home to go out and buy food. (Photo by Alice Oh PC '19)

Minority communities often face food insecurity higher than the national average, and 40% to 60% of farmworkers face irregular food access, said Teresa Mares, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont, during a Oct. 13 lecture and discussion exploring the intersection of migration and food security near the U.S.-Canada border.

“This is one of those inherently violent contradictions within our food system,” said Mares. “People who are producing, growing, and serving our food are often experiencing hunger and food insecurity at rates much higher than the national average.”

Mares’ talk about her work on the experiences of Latino/a dairy workers in Vermont was part of “Chewing the Fat: Racial Justice and Food,” a series presented by the Yale Sustainable Food Program and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.

Foreign migration to Vermont began in earnest in the late 1990s, noted Mares, with most migrants coming from southern Mexico and Guatemala. Between 2000 and 2010, the Latino/a population in Vermont grew 24 times faster than the overall population. Ninety percent of migrant workers are undocumented, and many come from indigenous backgrounds, with Spanish being their second language. Because dairy farming is the primary source of agricultural income in the state, almost all migrant farmworkers are working in that industry, she said.

The level of food insecurity among farmworkers is not significantly higher than for other Vermonters, partly because dairy work is year-round, Mares argued. However, Vermont’s location as a border state does have an effect, she said. Farmworkers are often reluctant to leave home for fear of detention and deportation by the border patrol, and this anxiety is higher closer to the border. Farmworkers living closest to Canada are more likely to self-medicate and experience depression, noted Mares, adding that while the food security methodology asks whether a person has money to buy food, it does not ask if the person has transportation or is afraid to go out to buy the food.

Migrant farmworkers in Vermont “are always within this border zone, in that space of fear,” Mares concluded. “That has a lot of impacts, not only in the barriers people are experiencing, but the ways people navigate those barriers. And to me, that’s even more interesting than the structural constraints — what people do amidst and against those constraints.”

The next “Chewing the Fat: Racial Justice and Food” event will be with Leah Penniman, a farmer and social justice organizer who founded Soul Fire Farm with Jonah Vitale-Wolff. Penniman and Soul Fire Farm are committed to dismantling oppressive structures in our food system through organizing, teaching, and innovative programming. The discussion will be held Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. at St. Anthony Hall, 483 College St.

The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration will host a Conference on Ethnic Studies in honor of Don Nakanishi ’71 on Nov 3 and 4. More information and registration are here.