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Perspective | Magazine

When will we make sure the people who work our farms and cook our food are well fed?

From field to table, Latinos are an integral part of the US food system. We need to make it more equitable.

A Mexican worker loads a conveyor belt with hay at a Vermont dairy farm.Terry J. Allen

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In April 2020 I found myself walking down a hallway to check in at each of the COVID-19 disinfection stations set up in Worcester Technical High School. The protocol called for covered hair, mouth, and nose; closed shoes; gloves; and some kind of aerosol for my clothing — nobody was sure what we were up against. I’d be observing the “war kitchen,” the food safety packaging operation set up by Worcester Public Schools to start delivering meals to children and other vulnerable people at their homes and in designated spots in our community.


The previous year I’d collaborated with the district to restructure its food training and workforce development practices, creating a partnership with Quinsigamond Community College to retrain kitchen staff. But on that spring morning in April, I walked out of the school thinking about the people in that kitchen: the “lunch and cafeteria ladies,” many of them Latinas, turned “essential workers.”

As it turned out, Latino workers suffered high COVID-19 infection rates while on the front lines of the food system. Between March 1 and May 31, 2020, over 36 percent of food manufacturing and agriculture workers were Hispanic or Latino, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (of the 28 states that report race and ethnicity data). And yet almost 73 percent of workers who contracted COVID-19 were Hispanic or Latino. The disproportionate infection rate remained steady throughout the pandemic.

From field to table, Latino workers — men, women, and children — are deeply embedded within the country’s food systems. They work in the meatpacking shops of the Midwest, Vermont’s dairy farms, California’s produce fields, and Massachusetts’ grocery stores. They’re present in all aspects of the food supply chain and preparation, from cultivation to transportation to waiting tables. Some are immigrants, including some who are undocumented; all are people we rely on.


According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 2.1 million immigrants (not all Latino) in the United States work growing, harvesting, processing, or selling food. Immigrants play an outsize role in food production, making up 21 percent of workers in the US food supply chain between 2017 and 2021. Over three-quarters of agricultural workers, including nearly one-third of US-born agricultural workers, identify as Hispanic, according to estimates by the 2019-2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey. Latino workers, as of 2020, represented about 1 in 5 employees in leisure and hospitality, many paid poverty-level wages if you apply federal standards for tipped employees.

It’s no secret that Latino workers supply the low-wage labor of US food systems, even within the post-industrial workforce of the gig economy. Yet, cruelly, as close as they are to such food systems, they’re also quite distant. Expensive supermarkets with digitized retail systems eliminate workers and obliterate neighborhood shops. Public policies offering more charitable food pantries or more food stamps seem insufficient to bridge such levels of alienation.

In 2014, after a long career in economic development, working in places such as Lawrence, Holyoke, Lowell, and Worcester — cities that serve as gateways for immigrants — I decided to embark on my own retraining. Combining my passion for cooking with my experience in workforce development, I honed in on a new mission: improving food systems.


I was fascinated by how we use human resources in kitchens. Could we improve the way we eat if we trained workers, such as those in the Worcester Tech kitchen, to know more about the food they’re about to cook? Taken a step further, would food prepared by a production line be any different from food prepared by workers allowed to infuse their own creativity or ethnicity into a school lunch meal? The answer to such questions was a resounding yes, though old ways are entrenched and difficult to change.

Thinking more broadly, how could we improve the skills and training opportunities of the impoverished Latino workers who pick our crops and prepare our food, especially in my home state of Massachusetts?

Starting in 2022 and wrapping up this summer, I was part of a 19-person research team organized by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to create new approaches to New England’s food supply. I found a great sense of viable policy-making in this initiative, which inspired me to continue fighting to support Latino workers in the food system.

Along the way, I learned about three key policies that could help:

Offer workforce development opportunities to all workers in the school food system. Massachusetts just became the eighth state to make school breakfasts and lunches permanently free for all students, which means way more meals will be cooked and served. If the focus is only on volume, and workers aren’t taught to preserve food quality (think: soggy broccoli), we lose an opportunity to upgrade nutrition for students and skills and knowledge for workers. Including workers in the discussion of how to improve these lunches also gives workers a performance incentive, which they can use for wage bargaining.


Focus on the geography of food retail and the post-COVID food retail reality. Out of view for most of us, supermarkets are changing hands, with more transnational and private equity capital ownership. “Supermarket redlining,” the choice by chain supermarkets to relocate or pull existing stores from impoverished neighborhoods, might create further risk for unemployment and underemployment for Latino workers and their communities. City policy makers, institutional capital planners, chambers of commerce, and community development corporations in gateway cities should aspire to a diverse “foodscape” that cultivates community job creation and job quality.

Offer better training to all workers. Reducing dependency on food stamps and increasing food security in disadvantaged communities is sound policy, but improving job quality and take-home pay for all workers seems more effective. In the Worcester school district project I collaborated on, all school kitchen workers were trained on safe food-handling practices. When the pandemic hit, they were ready to turn their “regular” kitchen crews into fast-moving action teams capable of tackling the crisis. This kind of training can and should be scaled for workers everywhere. Public health depends on it, now and in future emergencies.

As I near 60 years of age, I’m anxious to make a difference while I can. When I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store, I think about the cashier and bagger facing longer and more expensive commutes during this housing crisis, and what would happen to them if corporate owners cut their jobs and passed along price hikes to consumers. And I wonder: What can they afford to put in their grocery bags?


Read more from the My Boston History issue:

Ramón Borges-Méndez is an associate professor in the department of international development, community, and environment at Clark University. Send comments to