Friday, October 26, 2007

Meeting with Lariza Garzon

Today Rachel and I met with Lariza Garzon of the National Farm Worker Ministry. Lariza’s position focuses on connecting students and college student organizations with issues surrounding farmworkers. We are particularly excited about working with Lariza because she has a lot of great ideas about how to connect Rollins with farmworker concerns, such as bringing in speakers, showing films, developing alternative spring break programs, and starting an internship with the Farm Worker Ministry. In our meeting today we talked about ways to get students directly involved with matters concerning farmworker safety and treatment, such as the upcoming trip to Miami to protest Burger King. Burger King, like other fast food restaurants, purchases tomatoes from growers who do not pay fair wages to their workers. For more information visit the blog from Our meeting today raised our energy about getting more students active and excited about farmworker justice—we’re spreading the word in Central Florida!

Monday, August 27, 2007

follow-up healthcare meeting

Today I went to a follow-up meeting about healthcare in Apopka, sponsored again by the Orange County Health Department. The meeting started out with about a fourth of those who were present at the last one. Attendees included a representative of a local nonprofit offering healthcare for the uninsured, a few reps from Florida Hospital, the two women from OCHD who have been working on the Apopka project in their spare time, (including Nina Cooper, summer intern who's doing a master's in public health out in California, who will be missed) and, a little later into the meeting, a few community members and Jeannie from the Farmworkers Association. Geraldean Matthew spoke eloquently on behalf of the community- she wasn't able to make the last meeting (she recently learned she needs a kidney transplant), and she has so much presence that whenever she talks people are spellbound. She's a tireless community activist, but her health issues are starting to get in the way. A few highlights:

- Nina shared with me that St. John's River Management has decided Apopka is no longer polluted, so this may mean a loss of funding. OCHD has hired some toxicologists to confirm this report.

- The problem of access to fresh produce: Nina and Michele (OCHD) have been in talks with LYNX about getting buses to go to a Publix or to cross the street to the Super WalMart-- the bus now stops on the other side of the busy stretch of 441, which would be impossible to cross in time unless you were a marathon runner.

- The Apopka community clinic director has been approached about keeping the clinic open and reserving one night each week for this particular population of farmworkers (again, many of them need MUCH more than a visit to a general practitioner-- they need specialists, endocrinologists, etc)

- Nolan & I are invited to take part in talks with Florida Hospital about setting up some health seminars... which we're working on... trying to tap into the expertise of many of our colleagues at Rollins.

- The Apopka community members voiced their frustrations about outsiders starting little programs only to disappear and never be heard from again. They reiterated that many of their community members are dying. Geraldean spoke of the difficulty in getting healthcare-- once you get ON Medicaid, you're limited in the choice of doctors-- very few doctors want to be a part of the Medicaid plans because they don't get paid much by the government to see Medicaid patients, so there are no financial incentives. In particular this is true of specialists, so sometimes the only specialist who can serve as a Medicaid provider will be in Tampa. This is a huge systemic problem. Think Michael Moore's "Sicko..."

- If you build it, they will come... but not necessarily. On the hospital side of things, representatives feel like they have a hard time getting community members to attend anything. There was a lot of talk about how to "Get the word out" about community meetings-- churches, flyers at a furniture store where people cash their social security checks, a fish market people frequent.

- Geraldean talked about the need for health education-- she seemed to like the idea of healthcare seminars, and the possibility of having someone to talk about issues such as the best way to choose a healthcare provider, manage diabetes, eat healthfully... She was tired, though, of being blamed for bad nutritional habits. All the former farmworkers said they used to eat nothing but fish from Lake Apopka and fresh vegetables from the farms, which they took home with them every day.... and look where this got them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

News Article

From the Bradenton Herald, Aug. 11, 2007. The more things change...
Farmworkers tell EPA about chemicals

It was the end of a long day in 2004, and Olga was tired.
So the farmworker sat down in the middle of a field layered in plastic at one of the expansive farms outside Bradenton.

Later, her buttocks tingled. Hoping to ease the burn, she showered, but the water only made it worse, popping up blisters everywhere that began to burst and form again.

Olga, who is in the country illegally and did not want her last name used, went to a local hospital, where a doctor asked her what chemical she had worked with that day.

But she didn't know - all she knew was she was supposed to walk behind the truck that sprayed the "gas," as Olga called it.

After a night in the hospital, Olga, who did similar work for six years in and around Arcadia and Myakka City, was left with a hospital bill because of her second- and third-degree chemical burns. Her empl- oyer refused to pay.

Olga's story was one of many heard Friday by Environmental Protection Agency representatives visiting Wim- auma. The agency is proposing restrictions on fumigant use, including methyl bromide, which burned Olga.

"They did nothing to tell us the chemicals were dangerous," she said in Spanish, breaking down into tears. "And I have two sons and no husband. They didn't give me a check, nothing."

Fumigants are sprayed onto fields followed by a layer of plastic. A farmworker often drives a truck that sprays the chemical, followed by another farmworker who helps lay out the plastic and finally others who cut the plastic.

Included in the EPA's proposal are ways to restrict farmworker exposure, such as the timing of application, providing air-purifying respirators, use of machines to do the job and other methods.

Farmers in June spoke to EPA officials at a Fort Myers meeting, as part of the same effort by the agency to hear public comment on its proposal.

Growers there said restricting such fumigants would kill the agriculture industry in Florida, and if applied correctly, there is no harm, according to Herald archives.

Comments are being heard by EPA officials until Sept. 3, and a final decision is expected in late November.

"We don't want to see agriculture end in Florida," said Jeannie Economos, with The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc. "We just want to see agriculture where the workers' health is as important as the environment and as important as the consumers."

Farmworker advocate groups say workers are not adequately educated on the dangers of fumigants, especially methyl bromide. They say workers are not trained and often do not receive protective gear.

Those protections need to be enforced, farmworker advocates say, or there should be a complete ban on methyl bromide.

"They are all being directly exposed to this toxic chemical," said Soli Mercado, a staff attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services. "What's the point of making all these regulations and they're not being followed?"

Olga and other farmworkers said Friday they received little to no training on fumigants.

"You don't see the farmer out there," said James Brown, with Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. "He's, in a lot of cases, not even monitoring if it's safe."

Bertin Cruz, a former farmworker in the Immokalee area, said he worked for eight to 10 years in tomato fields laying plastic treated with chemicals.

He complained to a supervisor one day, Cruz said, that he wasn't feeling good. Cruz said the supervisor asked him, "Are you a man? Because men just take it."

When inspectors came to the field, Cruz said, workers were told to leave for hours until the inspector left.

"It's incredible," he told EPA officials in Spanish.

Pedro Lopez currently works near Immokalee cutting plastic layers. He said training for the job consisted of making sure to wear glasses and wash your hands before eating.

"When the gas is too strong or the heat gets to 95 degrees, it gets worse," he said in Spanish.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Photos from Interviews and Toxic Tour

A portrait of Martin Luther King, inside one of the homes of a woman we interviewed--a symbol of hope during an era of oppression.

A pig farm bordering the dump and neighboring an Apopka home.

One of the homes of Apopka; if you look closely behind the red SUV you can notice the hill of a landfill nearby. Many homes share the landfill for a backyard. It used to be all exposed trash, but recently received grass covering from a nearby dig site.

This dig site supplied dirt and grass to cover the eyesore of the Lake Jewel Dump that borders several Apopka homes.

An Apopka home near the dump site.

Magnolia Park boat ramp with recent documents about lake health and safety.

Toxic Tour

In addition to our interviews on Friday, Jeannie, Geraldean, Nolan, and I drove around in the Farmworkers' Association van with Nina and Michele from the Orange County Health Department, on what Jeannie was calling a "Toxic Tour of Apopka." Geraldean narrated the landscape through the pouring rain, pointing out houses of recently deceased farmworkers, or orange groves where young girls ran (and, some say, still run, for the Hispanic farmworker population) from cruel overseers to avoid sexual assault.

Apopka strikes visitors first and foremost with its rural character-- just twelve miles north of Orlando, patchy efforts at upscale development lie interspersed with old farmland and weed-choked wilderness that reminds me much more of the South Carolina I grew up in than Florida. The farms, abandoned in 1998, still offer evidence of their existence-- the illegally buried pesticide containers that rise to the surface during periods of intense rainfall, or roads set back from Highway 441 that lead through orange groves and sod farms to land that is being "reclaimed" for wetlands. Like buried landmines, everywhere there are signs reminding people that pesticides are still in the soil, and that hunting or fishing are activities not to be undertaken, yet this is too little, too late for the people who worked the land for so long, toiling in the fields as the fine mist of organo-chlorines wafted over their faces from planes high above.

On Sunday we interviewed a woman who worked the farms back in the 1950s and 1960s, always wearing a hat to protect her face, even though supposedly nobody knew back then, no employer or crew supervisor informed them that they should leave the fields. Her face was smooth, nut-brown, almost unlined for a 77 year-old woman, but her arms and legs bore the strange, patchy discoloration symptomatic of pesticide-related skin disorders. "I was always vain about my face," she told us. And in many ways, her story was all too familiar: diabetes, inexplicable and painful skin conditions, arthritis, children and grandchildren with excessive numbers of allergies, learning disabilities, lupus. Slightly less than half of her children she buried before her. She didn't go into the reasons why.

Interview at Edna's House

On Thursday Rachel, Jeannie and I visited the home of Edna, a widow to a former Apopka farmwoker. Edna waited for us expectantly and greeted us with a motherly smile. “C’mon, “C’mon in!” She repeated from the timid and worn wooden stairs outside her front door, waving to us in her pink floral dress and gold bejeweled sandals. Edna walked Rachel, Jeannie, and I into her home after greeting us warmly on the wooden stairs built on top of her overgrown yard. Meeting her was like reuniting with a relative or an old friend; someone we hadn’t seen in years but managed to somehow keep in touch. Edna left a comb in her smoothed hair and invited us to sit down in the front room of her home. The small room was outfitted with two worn couches and a small television. One wall was covered with wood-grain shelving paper, while the others were a faded dull yellow with occasional cracks and holes. Various knickknacks and decorative elements filled the room for a more personal touch; a lamp missing a lampshade adorned a small side table, and the seats of the couches were covered with pillowcases to hide their wear. The walls featured pictures of relatives and a canvass of a waterfall.

Once settled and after figuring out how to operate the video camera, we asked Edna to tell us her story. She began by telling us about her husband, who had worked on farms since he was a young boy, and suffered a stroke late in his life. After speaking for only a short while two of her daughters, Whitney and Sandra, entered the house and sat with us. Whitney and Sandra were more emotionally charged than Edna; a lifetime of hardship left them outraged with their country, questioning how such a wealthy nation could have such poverty and little assistance for those in need. Whitney and Sandra picked up where Edna left us, describing their father’s and their own skin problems from contact with pesticides, and their lack of medical care. Whitney and Sandra suffer from serious medical problems but cannot find treatment because of the overcrowded dental clinics and limited expertise of the health clinic. Sandra’s children also need specialist attention as they have behavior issues such as difficulty with anger management and A.D.D.

As health concerns of this community become increasingly apparent, so do serious social concerns. Whitney and Sandra are not eligible for Medicaid—the $323 a week Sandra earns is too much money for assistance. Frustrated for having worked her entire life and having only a stack of medical bills to show for it, Whitney began to cry. “Our daddy spent his whole life working on the farms, and we have nothing to show for it.” At that moment I realized the extent of the hardship these women had faced. Edna’s outlook on life was slightly more positive because of her faith in God, it kept her strong in difficult times, especially while taking care of her husband after she suffered from an aneurism.

When we got up to leave we all hugged and Edna, Whitney, and Sandra thanked us for listening to them. We told them we were happy to listen but we want to do more—we want to take action to help end their suffering and marginalization. As we walked out the door and onto the damp wooden stairs, we could hear Edna’s motherly voice behind us.
“Hold on to the handrail now!” Edna said gently, expressing her concern for our safety, as if guiding a child through a treacherous path. I felt regardless of age or how long one knew Edna, she considered everyone her children, and looked after them accordingly. How is it a mother to everyone she meets cannot get a larger system of support for herself?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Orange County Health Department

Geraldean Matthews was originally the one in charge of the Pace grant that Michelle is taking over for the Orange County Health Department, but apparently Geraldean's health has not been good these days. As Nolan points out, it's interesting that Michelle's job is concerned with inspections-- inspecting the sanitary conditions of public pools and food sites (say, where a day camp feeds kids). It sounds like Apopka was tacked on to her existing job duties-- yet another example of how people already overworked and doing multiple other projects have to work on Apopka as a side project. Orange County also seems very interested in the Parks & Recreation aspect of Apopka-- no green space-- but Jeannie pushed for the healthcare agenda, and Michelle seemed to be listening. We've got another meeting next week with some "key players" in Apopka and in OCHD to discuss this-- it's exciting that Jeannie has been able to bring us to the table with these issues.