December 1, 2000

While America Celebrates Thanksgiving New Study Shows Farm Labor Suffering in Silence

Fresno, Ca. — While millions of Americans are celebrating their Thanksgiving feast, the work force that produce that seasonal bounty continues to suffer in silence. A landmark study released by The California Endowment reveals that the vast majority of California's agricultural workers are at serious risk for life-threatening chronic diseases caused by poor nutrition, and enjoy little or no access to health care to treat these illnesses.

Table grapes from Kern County are harvested at the peak of the season by a California farm worker. As a result of the contribution of farm workers like him, American enjoys the most nutritious and affordable fruits and vegetables in the world.

The California Agricultural Worker Health Survey (CAWHS), the first comprehensive study to examine farm labor health issues, found an alarmingly high risk for heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes among the state's agricultural workers, most of whom are young men who should be in peak physical condition especially considering their labor-intensive jobs.

"It's a travesty that the families who produce such an abundance of healthy food for our tables suffer from a poor diet and limited or non-existent health care," says Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment, the state's largest health foundation. "As a nation we literally enjoy the fruits of their labors, but we give little back in the way of the most basic health care."

Among the study's most starling findings were the revelations that young agricultural workers (20 to 34-years-old) are more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure as other U.S. adults and that more than three out of four were overweight or obese than other U.S. adults. Male agricultural workers were four times more likely to suffer from iron deficiency anemia, an indication of poor nutrition.

The base-line study discovered that more than a third of the male agricultural workers have never seen a doctor or been to a health clinic. Over half of the males and 40 percent of the female agricultural workers have never been to a dentist, even though more than a third of the men and nearly 40 percent of the women have at least one rotten, broken or missing tooth. During the interviews that included a complete physical examination, four out of ten workers reported persistent pain that lasted more than a week, as well as itchy or irritated eyes, headaches, skin irritation and numbness.

"The very people who have helped build the nation's food economy have slipped through America's safety net for health care. They're facing unprecedented health threats with few places to turn for help," says Ross.

The benchmark study, conducted by the non-profit California Institute for Rural Studies, combined extensive one-on-one interviews of nearly 1,000 workers in six of the state's major agricultural areas with a complete physical, including a blood and urine testing. The results provide the medical community with clinical baseline health data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of future interventions and the overall health of this underserved population.

In addition to being labor-intensive, agriculture is America's most dangerous industry after construction, according to the National Safety Council, yet 70 percent of the workers surveyed lacked any form of health insurance. About 16.5 percent said that their employer offered health insurance, a figure far lower than any other industry in America. However, nearly one-third of these same workers did not take advantage of this benefit because they could not afford either the cost of premiums or co-payments.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow's chronicle of America's agricultural workers in his groundbreaking broadcast, "Harvest of Shame." Tragically, the CAWHS findings demonstrate that agricultural workers continue to suffer disproportionately and lack the health care access needed to correct their plight.

Calling for action, The California Endowment is establishing a Task Force of health providers, migrant labor, community and agribusiness leaders and other influential policy makers to address this health crisis. Since its inception in 1996, The California Endowment has committed over $50 million to help 35 statewide programs and grants assist the state's agricultural labor force.

For additional information or a complete copy of the study, visit The Endowment's Web site at

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