CSU scholars discuss COVID-19’s impacts on the food system and ag workers

A truck carrying large bins of squash sits parked in a field alongside rows of green plants. Several workers are on the truck and in the field.
Farmworkers pick squash in Georgia. (Photo: USDA/David Kosling)

The High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (HICAHS) at Colorado State University hosted a virtual panel discussion on the impacts of COVID-19 on workers in the agricultural sector on Tuesday, Dec. 8. Moderated by the center’s Deputy Director, Lorann Stallones, professor in the CSU Department of Psychology the panel featured CSU researchers and community partners. The center hosted the dialogue to build connections among researchers in the region who focus on agricultural safety and health and highlight funding opportunities to support this work.

COVID-19’s impacts trickled down the food system

“The food system is complex and varied, so it’s challenging to succinctly summarize all the ways COVID-19 has had an impact” said Becca Jablonski, assistant professor and food systems Extension economist in the CSU Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that it changed how consumers purchase food, almost overnight. Prior to the pandemic, U.S. households spent over 50% of their food budget at food away from home outlets such as restaurants. As social distancing measures took hold, households immediately shifted away from food away from home purchases and spend a much larger share of their food budget on food at home venues such as grocery stores,” said Jablonski.

From grocery stores to potato warehouses, business and workers had to adapt in response. This was especially challenging for many parts of production agriculture. “Farm work is very seasonal in nature,” said Anita Alves Pena, professor in the CSU Department of Economics. “The pandemic hit at an already busy time in the season and added extra pressures to an already vulnerable workforce.”

Impacts on farm laborers

In a project completed a few years ago, Pena and colleagues utilized data from the National Agricultural Worker Survey, a survey administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, to analyze farmworkers’ access to field sanitation. “Despite a robust regulatory environment, we still found there were gaps in access to adequate handwashing facilities” said Pena. With handwashing one of the key actions to slow the spread of the virus, this finding is worrisome to Pena.

Farmworker in an apple orchard dumping a basket of apples he picked into a large crate.
Pre-pandemic a farmworker from Honduras on an H-2A temporary visa picks apples in Pennsylvania. (Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung)

Bethany Alcauter, manager of evaluation and special projects at the Texas-based National Center for Farm Worker Health, expressed specific concern about agricultural workers in the H-2A visa program. While H-2A workers experience many of the same work-related risk as the domestic workforce, the key difference is that these guest workers live in employer-provided housing and work in some of the most rural communities. “Limited housing with crowded conditions makes following social distancing impractical, if not impossible,” said Alcauter. In many cases, these workers lack access to resources, like adequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies, to keep themselves safe. Alcauter believes that better cooperation between regulators, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care providers, community organizations, and farm owners could improve the prevention of future COVID-19 outbreaks among H-2A workers.

Predicting changes to the labor supply

In the early spring, Alexandra Hill, assistant professor in the CSU Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, also utilized her experience working with agricultural producers in California and Colorado to predict COVID-19’s impacts. “We thought there would be issues with the labor supply” said Hill. Specifically, a reduction in the number of workers due to parents having to leave the workforce to care for children and limits on the number foreign guest workers allowed in the U.S.

A vital lesson for Hill was that these predictions weren’t always correct. In fact, the opposite was sometimes true, with local producers reporting layoffs and furloughs of the workforce. “As researchers, it’s important for us to follow up on our predictions and learn what really happened.”

One barrier to this work is a lack of local, real-time data. Hill is trying to close that gap, collaborating with CSU Extension to administer a survey across the agricultural sector in Colorado to understand how local agricultural producers perceive the labor market.  “The survey will improve our understanding of the current situation of Colorado agricultural labor and will help to inform future policy initiatives and educational programs” said Hill.

COVID-19 exacerbates community tensions for meat packers

Farmworkers are not the only labor force in the food system that has been significantly impacted by COVID-19, as meat and other food processing facilities have also experiencing significant virus outbreaks. Since 2018, Eric Ishiwata, associate professor in the CSU Department of Ethnic Studies, and community collaborators have been leading adult health education programs for foreign-born workers in the Fort Morgan, CO community. All the participants either work at or live with family members who work at beef processing plants. “Our participants started getting sick, with symptoms we now recognize as those of COVID-19,” Ishiwata recalled. Due to lack of anti-body testing, Ishiwata said it’s hard to confirm for sure, but a respiratory illness began circulating through the community in February.

Four people assess recently processed raw turkeys as they go by on a conveyor belt.
Pre-pandemic workers and a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) poultry grader inspect turkeys at a processing plant in Pennsylvania. (Photo: USDA/Preston Keres)

According to data collected by the Food and Environment Tracking Network, as of December 15, more than 51,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 across the U.S. Despite high profile media attention, Ishiwata says the actual experiences of meat packers he works with is much more challenging and complex than the media portrays.

Taking steps to improve working conditions can seem like an uphill battle. “Food system policies sit in the context of values” Jablonski said. “We can help communities and policymakers to understand the tradeoffs associated with different food policies, but ultimately it is up to them to make decisions based on what they value” Jablonski said.

Ishiwata echoed Jablonski’s thoughts while reflecting on COVID-19’s impacts on the students in the health education programs. “There’s a lot of distrust of the system as a whole” said Ishiwata. This distrust, the result of anti-immigrant sentiments and policies at local and national levels, means these workers and their families are often reluctant to seek care when ill and hesitant to participate in contract tracing activities.

Improving health and safety through collaboration

The discussion ended with panelists making a resounding call for increased collaboration between researchers, policy makers, regulators, and agricultural producers. “There is a disconnect between COVID-19 guidance and what’s actually practiced on farms and ranches” said Hill.

The High Plains Center for Agricultural Health and Safety hopes to be the launchpad for this innovation. “We know that these kinds of interdisciplinary discussions can lead to collaboration and new partnerships,” said Stallones.  “They can spur the innovative research and interventions that are much needed to improve the health and safety of workers across the agricultural sector.”

Grant Programs

The High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety provides grant funding to researchers and organizations to identify and respond to critical issues affecting workers in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing industries. Interested in applying? The center reviews applications for funding on rolling basis. Potential applicants are encouraged to review the grant funding announcement and contact Morgan Valley for more information.