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State officials: Migrant workers 'most economically disadvantaged group'

Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess.org —Every year, thousands of migrant workers come to harvest food for Illinois while going hungry themselves.

“You suffer a lot,” said Abel Cintora, a farm worker and a member of the Illinois Migrant Council.

Cintora was one of several people to speak recently at a hearing in Rantoul as part of a state task force to end hunger.

“One of the hardships is the fact that we never know if we are going to have a full paycheck,” he said in Spanish to a room of about two dozen people. “A lot of times your faced with the choice to pay rent or buy food.”

The Illinois Migrant Council estimates that at least 30,000 people come to work Illinois’ farms each year for one purpose - to support their families.

But their journey here is tough and they face many struggles along the way, experts said, including bad housing, exposure to pesticides and food insecurity.

Food insecurity means that a person does not have constant access to enough food.

“They are one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the country,” said Eloy Salazar, executive director of the Illinois Migrant Council.

Wages depending on the weather and lack of consistent income coupled with rising transportation and food costs add up to “extreme situations” where both the farm workers and their children go hungry, he said.

“The most vulnerable are the children whose nutrition is vital to their health and growth,” Salazar said.

Often times, families arrive to work with little money in their pocket and a long wait for their first paychecks, said Donna Camp, director of Urbana’s Wesley Evening Food Pantry.

“Transitions are a very difficult time,” she said. “Transitions in your life between jobs and houses are when food insecurity happens.”

And where they live can make a difference too, Camp said.

“Housing impacts food security,” she said. “People living without adequate refrigerators and cooking facilities also impacts the kind of food (they can use). Our families need the kind of food they can turn into lunches. Families are going without lunch.”

Gov. Pat Quinn approved a bill to create the Illinois Commission to End Hunger last year as a way to address the state’s hunger problems. The group will recommend solutions after it completes a series of hearings to survey food insecurity across the state.

“The situation with farm workers of Illinois is getting bleaker and the food insecurity problem is getting worse,” Salazar said. “There has to be some type of food security for them who come to harvest crops for the (state).”

Organizations such as the Illinois Migrant Council offer migrant workers a quicker way to access food help, such as an expedited process for food stamps. But recent funding cuts mean that the council has less resources to reach people and in turn, more people go without.

To help make ends meet, migrant workers often find second jobs, but even that is not enough.

“It still becomes very hard to survive, especially if you have children,” Cintora said.

Possible solutions include a door-to-door service to deliver food boxes for those without transportation, more food stamp coordinators and longer hours at food pantries, experts said.

“Through all of these years, I’ve noticed a big need for farm workers not having enough food to eat and to bring to the table,” said Jose Garza, a farm worker and vice chairman of the Illinois Migrant Workers board. “It’s pretty hard and it breaks my heart.”

 

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