About 700 people packed the Mello Center in Watsonville Friday afternoon for Harvesting Equity, an event where safety, living wages, contracts, housing and immigration reform for farmworkers took center stage.
At the podium were Mireya Gómez-Contreras, Ann Lopez PhD and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.
Administrative Co-leader of Esperanza Community Farms, Gómez-Contreras, explored the benefits of organic farming, the dangers of pesticides still in use today and the benefits of creating a “food system that can be run with dignity and connectivity.”
She emphasized the importance of creating and maintaining relationships between schools and farms, especially when hazardous materials were being used on farms near schools. She also decried the “Cheeto Culture,” referencing the packaged, processed chips and snacks frequently devoured by area students, and stressed the importance of replacing that with healthy food at schools.
Lopez began her talk by stating that farmworkers are in a position similar to workers in the U.S. South when slavery was legal.
“And they also live in constant fear of deportation,” Lopez said. “Farmworkers are impoverished, often abused, with minimal or no health insurance; they are trapped, controlled and with almost no chance of escape. They are overworked with a poor diet and die at a much lower life expectancy than the rest of us. Farmworkers and their family members are the most exposed population to the health impacts of toxic pesticide exposure.”
She said leukemia, brain tumors, bone cancer, birth defects, autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities are widespread among children of farmworking families, and that it is almost impossible to collect data on the frequency of such problems.
“These are not isolated incidents,” she added.
Huerta, a legendary figure in social justice that spans decades that began in 1962 when she and Cesar Chavez founded United Farm Workers, also targeted dangerous pesticide use.
“The only way we can stop the use of these deadly pesticides is to put it in the hands of Health and Human Services,” she said. “Take this out of the EPA; take it out of the Ag Department. It is not just the farmworkers that have these cancers.”
Locally, the Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (CORA) has a short-term goal of a one mile pesticide-free buffer around the city of Watsonville, which was recently supported by a Watsonville City Council resolution. Long-term, CORA wants to see the entire Pajaro Valley become a model for climate-friendly agriculture free of toxic pesticides, incorporating educational and cultural resources for all ages, while building an equitable economy.