Migrant Farm Workers

Exploring Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont

“There is this violent irony in our food system, in that the people who provide food security for all of us are the most likely to be food insecure themselves”. This was the heart of the message shared by University of Vermont Scholar Teresa Mares at a recent gathering at the Middlebury Unitarian Universalist Society. Mares was sharing insights gleaned during research for her book Life on the Other Border:  Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont, which aimed to shed light on the intersections of structural vulnerability and food insecurity experienced by migrant farmworkers in the northeastern borderlands of the United States. 

By the Numbers

Half of all workers on U.S. dairy farms are migrants and most are from Mexico. Losing them would double the total retail price of milk and cost our nation’s economy more than $32 billion. Across the U.S., Latinx farmworker food security occurs at 3-4 times the national average and  Mares recognized that there was a lack of data on food security among farmworkers in Vermont. Through her research, Mares was able to identify that there are approximately 1,000-1,200 Latinx migrant workers sustaining the Dairy Industry in Vermont. Most of these individuals are from Southern Mexico, but some also come from Central America. These workers are mostly men, but steady numbers of migrant women are also employed on Vermont’s dairy farms. They are concentrated most heavily in Franklin and Addison County.

Roughly 90% of these workers are undocumented, due in large part to the fact that dairy workers are ineligible to work seasonally on farms on an H2A Visa, as is common in Vermont’s apple industry. A whopping 68% of Vermont’s milk comes from dairies employing migrant laborers, representing annual sales of $320 million, translating to 43% of New England’s milk supply. These individuals pay taxes, yet they’re unlikely to have the opportunity to utilize any of the resources that their tax dollars support. They are not eligible for food assistance resources like 3-Squares VT or WIC unless they have a U.S. born child and even then, they must be able to endure the risk of exposure associated with the completion of a government form. 

After surveying 100 migrant farmworkers (75 men and 25 women) in Vermont, Mares discovered that 18% of the state’s migrant farmworkers experience food insecurity, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. She also recognized that these numbers fail to paint a completely accurate picture of the data, as the standard USDA survey that is used to asses food security operates on the assumption that if one has money then one must have access healthy food. This assumption fails to account for the various other barriers that the average migrant farmworker experiences when trying to access healthy food. The reality for most migrant farmworkers is that access presents a greater challenge than financial instability. The survey also makes assumptions about what constitutes a household. Migrant farmworkers are often living in cramped quarters with many of their peers and are thus not representative of a typical household. Given this multitude of factors supported by information gathered during a series of in-depth interviews with farmworkers, Mares determined that 50% or more of farmworker households likely struggle with access to food. 

Challenges to Access

When working 70 or more hours per week without a day off, as is the reality for most migrant dairy workers, it can be rather difficult to find time to shop for groceries. Add to that the rural isolation, lack of transportation, and a crippling fear of deportation experienced by a migrant farmworker living in a predominantly white community located well within the 100-mile jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and it’s easy to understand why most members of this community (96%) rely on a third-party to access food. Mares also shared that there’s limited access to culturally-appropriate food in Vermont and a general lack of awareness of the kinds of food available in many stores. If you’ve never been able to enter a Vermont grocery store, you can only take your best guess as to what might be available when preparing your grocery list for a third-party shopper. Additionally, when you’re living in a household with 5 or more adults and you’re only able to shop every 15 days, there becomes a need for a significant amount of refrigerated storage space that is often lacking in the substandard housing where these individuals live. Mares expressed her strong belief that any strategies aimed at alleviating food insecurity among this group must be willing to travel to the farms and meet the farmworkers where they are. 


While it’s clear that Vermont’s Dairy Industry is heavily reliant on migrant farmworkers from a financial perspective, Mares challenged those in attendance to avoid measuring the worth of this hard-working group of individuals in economic terms. Their true value to our community runs much deeper. Mares’ book sheds light on the many ways that these individuals display resiliency and creativity in the face of a very challenging and isolated existence. They’re a culturally-rich group of people who often possess agricultural knowledge that far exceeds the actual farmwork that they’re employed to do and our failure to engage with them as members of our community results in a lost opportunity for valuable and meaningful cultural exchange.

Thanks to their brave willingness to organize and advocate for better working conditions, combined with the efforts of organizations such as the Huertas Project, the Addison Allies Network, Migrant Justice, and the Open Door Clinic, creative solutions are emerging to help support and foster increased resiliency among our migrant farmworker communities. We’re grateful to Teresa Mares for her willingness to shed light on this important issue and we’re grateful to the local organizations that are finding solutions to the challenges Mares outlined in her work. We look forward to exploring ways to support this effort. 

Co-op Board Member Louise Vojtisek, General Manager Glenn Lower, Author Teresa Mares, Education Coordinator Emily Landenberger, and Board Member Lynn Dunton.

Vermont’s Local Food System: A Report Card – Part 1


At a recent meeting of the Addison County Hunger Council, three representatives offered interesting perspectives regarding Vermont’s local food system, and shared the successes and challenges associated with serving each particular group they represented. The Council explored issues throughout the local food system, from the farm workers who produce the food, to the distribution system for getting food to those who need it most. Council members discussed available resources, what supports are necessary, and what opportunities are present.

The representatives sharing presentations were Dr. Teresa Mares of UVM, Lily Bradburn of HOPE, and Jonathan Corcoran of ACORN. Dr. Mares shared insights about how our local food system serves the growing migrant farm worker population in Vermont. Lily Bradburn spoke about how these systems serve members of our community who are food insecure, and Jonathan Corcoran discussed local food system goals and challenges for our state as a whole.  Here at the Co-op, we spend a lot of time thinking about local food and the systems that support it, though it was very interesting and unique to think of it though the lens of these diverse groups of people. If the function of a food system is to feed the community it supports, then we must assess its efficacy from the diverse viewpoints of all members of that community. Through a three-part review of these presentations, we hope to share what we learned with all of you. First up is the work of Dr. Teresa Mares.

Migrant Farm Workers & Their Families:

Dr. Teresa Mares and her assistant Jessie Mazar (University of Vermont) led the discussion about food security among our growing migrant farm worker population in Vermont. Teresa is a professor of Anthropology at UVM, and Jessie is a graduate student in Food Systems. They presented an overview of a research project they’ve been working on for the past 5 years.  The project, which will be continuing for another few years, just finished its first phase, in which she and Jessie collected data on food insecurity and access to food through surveys with migrant farm workers.

Vermont is considered a “non-traditional destination” for migrant workers, but still has at least 1000 – 1200 migrant workers in the state. 90% of migrant workers are undocumented, so the exact number is unknown. Most are arriving from Mexico, though some come from countries in Central America.  Most migrant workers are concentrated in Addison County and Franklin County, and many work on dairy farms. Vermont is the most dairy-dependent state in the country, and it’s estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of the state’s dairy products are prepared by migrant workers. Dairy work is considered very desirable, as it is consistent, year-round, and usually offers some form of housing. However, because it is year-round, there is no legal pathway to citizenship for workers.

Teresa and Jessie’s early conclusions show that a worker’s proximity to the US / Canada border has a strong effect on that person’s food security and access to resources. Teresa highlighted the physical location of two invisible lines: one was 25 miles from the US/Canada border and defines the “primary operating zone” for Border Patrol and Immigration Services (IS); the second was 100 miles from the border, in which land is still under the general jurisdiction of Border Patrol and IS, but sees much less activity. Addison County falls within this 100 mile border.

Overall, only 18% of migrant workers were found to be food insecure, which is close to the Vermont average, and much better than other states’ migrant populations. Nationally, migrant farm workers experience food insecurity at a rate that is roughly 3-4 times the national average (14%), so it’s reassuring to find that these families fare slightly better here in Vermont. The average in Franklin County was 18.2%, but in Addison County, migrant food insecurity was only 15.7%. Teresa linked this to the two different areas’ proximity to the US / Canada border. In Addison County, which is outside of the primary operating zone for IS and Border Patrol, migrant workers are much more likely to use driver permission cards, and much more likely to be traveling away from their farms in order to access food and other resources. However, in Franklin County, migrant workers were much more afraid to leave the farm, which has led to a lot of dependence on their employers or third parties to get food. This practice has been very exploitative in some places.

Jessie described the Huertas project being led by UVM Extension, which has helped demonstrate the incredible resiliency and creativity of accessing food by migrant workers. UVM Extension workers have helped provide seedlings of culturally appropriate plants and started gardens for migrant workers on farms. The program started in Addison County last year, and found that there were already strong networks of migrant workers in the region. Jessie described that many migrant workers already have farming backgrounds, and use the gardens to supplement their own food
over the summer months (as opposed to trying to scale up and create a market for their crops). The gardens also serve an important social and cultural role for the workers.

One interesting highlight was when Jessie mentioned the role of local co-ops in offering culturally meaningful foods for these families. She found during her interviews that migrant farm workers are often able to find culturally meaningful foods like masa, dried chiles, and corn husks for tamales at co-ops. She touched on the importance of providing access to these foods, as they can have an important influence on social and familial relationships. These foods allow migrant families to retain their cultural identity and maintain strong family and social bonds.

The Council discussed some of the political and logistical complications facing migrant workers and their families. Dr. Mares described the challenging hours facing dairy workers, who often work 70-80 hours/week from 4-11am and 4-11pm, which obviously affects their health and ability to cook. Middlebury Foods shared that they have been trying to connect their services to these families, and are in the early stages of trying to provide food pick-up sites in areas that are easily accessible for migrant farm workers.  Dr. Mares and council member, Martha Kenfield, discussed that migrant families usually access school meals. Martha shared that if a parent identifies themselves as a migrant, it allows the family access to more resources at the school, but understood that revealing their status could be difficult. Cheryl Mitchell of NOFA- VT, who was part of a group that helped start the Latino Farmworker Coalition, praised the presentation and research. She is encouraged by the amount of energy emerging around supporting migrant workers, especially the Migrant Justice group and their Milk with Dignity program.

Dr. Mares’s work was enlightening and inspiring. It certainly identified areas for improvement with regard to our food system and the way it serves these members of our community, but also shed light on some very positive programs and components of our food system that are making food accessible for migrant farm workers and their families. As the population of migrant farm workers continues to grow in our county, what can we do to make our Co-op a more welcoming and accessible place for these community members?