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How building a community of care can improve farmworkers’ health

Farmworkers face major challenges when it comes to staying healthy. They often spend hours daily performing physical labor that taxes the body, while language barriers and lack of employer-paid health insurance complicate their access to care. But the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center is working on a unique way to improve health care for these workers. Anikka Abbott has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally: Farm workers face major challenges accessing health care.

    But a group in Southeastern Arizona has a unique solution that appears to be working.

    From the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, Anikka Abbott reports.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    Bend, pluck, place, repeat. For hours a day, workers at NatureSweet farms in Southeast Arizona pick tomatoes. It's work that requires strength, skill, and good health.

    Public health expert Jill Guernsey de Zapien says farmwork often causes muscle and back issues.

  • Jill Guernsey de Zapien:

    Everything for harvesting crops, for packaging them, et cetera, and stuff, it is built to make it happen fast. It's not built to protect the body of the workers.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    The National Center for Farmworker Health says the top three things farm workers suffer from are obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.

    Workers like Dillon Valenzuela do what they can to get ready for the day.

  • Dillon Valenzuela (through translator):

    When we enter, first, we have to exercise, stretch out. Then we put all the protective clothes on for the greenhouse.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    Even though they prepare for the work, some farmworkers struggle to maintain their own health.

    Four hundred people work in this tomato plant. The majority of them work here in the greenhouses. And almost 95 percent of them speak Spanish primarily.

    Language is one barrier to health care. Access is another, says Gail Emrick, executive director of the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center, or SEAHEC.

  • Gail Emrick:

    Particularly precarious with farmworkers is the type of labor they're involved in, if it's shift work vs. ongoing or formal employment. And so some people might have health insurance and health coverage, and others may not.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    The National Center for Farmworker Health says almost 53 percent of farmworkers across the country are uninsured. Even some with health insurance have limited access. The ratio of people to doctors in rural areas is 2,500 to one.

  • Jill Guernsey de Zapien:

    It's not saying necessarily that we don't have enough health professionals. It's saying that they're not distributed well throughout the country.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    Here in Winchester Heights, an unincorporated Latino neighborhood just 10 minutes from the farm, there are no doctors. The closest town with a medical facility is 20 minutes away.

    Enter the Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center, whose goal is to help residents in rural areas gain access to health care.

    In Winchester Heights, they helped build a community center where public health interns train resident volunteers, known as promotoras de salud. After receiving training, health care workers, like Aida Dominguez, go door to door in Winchester Heights to teach their neighbors about better health, like nutrition and sun protection.

  • Aida Dominguez (through translator):

    And then she told me, I am so grateful because, I didn't know, but now I know that you have to use a hat.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    Latino farmworkers say the community center and health workers have made an impact on their health. Having promotoras who speak their own language and come from their own community make a difference.

  • Aida Dominguez (through translator):

    It's important to have a social environment and also to be able to help the children, the youth, the adults, the elders, so we will be united.

  • Anikka Abbott:

    Along with health care, the health education group is now also teaching residents how to run their own nonprofit. They plan to turn the community center over to the people in Winchester Heights next year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Anikka Abbott with Cronkite News in Winchester Heights, Arizona.

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