June 17, 2010

Initiative helps Oxnard farm workers improve their health

Sponsored by a local corporation, the new program promotes awareness and action in the Latino community

By Shane Cohn

The Latino farm workers in the city of Oxnard toil upward of 10 hours of a day, six days a week, to provide healthful produce for grocers state and nationwide. However, the obesity and diabetes epidemic is now threatening the well-being of their own community.

Reiter Affiliated Companies, an employer of farm workers and an international berry producer headquartered in Oxnard, has implemented the Healthy Lifestyle Initiative – Sembrando Salud, a pilot program that targets farm workers and educates them about the dangers of obesity and the importance of a healthy diet.

“We’re developing intervention methods that are more effective with the farm worker population because farm workers are a special population with special challenges,” said Yissel Barajas, Reiter’s director of philanthropy.

To facilitate the Oxnard pilot program, Reiter got on board with UC Berkeley’s Health Initiative of the Americas. The initiative involves government, academia, the private sector and community-based organizations pulling together health resources for Latino immigrants. UC Davis will be collecting and analyzing data from 150 Oxnard participants, as well as 150 from Watsonville and 300 from central Mexico. Conclusions and results of the study will be formally released in June 2011

In a time of economic upheaval and persistent unemployment, Reiter knows exactly how valuable its employees are to the economy. Ventura County accounted for $1.5 billion in agricultural revenue in 2007 and, according to the Department of Food and Agriculture, by revenue, the county ranks eighth in California. Barajas said that Reiter has always been looking for programs to help its farm workers, but this time around it wanted to make a bigger impact.

In a 2009 Consensus Report of Local Agriculture and Labor Representatives, as measured by the body mass index, 81 percent of male and 76 percent of female farm workers were at unhealthy weights. Nearly one in five men (18 percent) had at least two of three risk factors for chronic disease: high serum cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity.

In Oxnard, the pilot program began its 10-week course in May. The course is a comprehensive program in which geographic, social and cultural aspects are incorporated into the course curriculum.

“We’re using examples they can relate to,” said Barajas. “We’re using cultural vocabulary they understand. It’s a culturally sensitive program to a large indigenous population of farm workers. Their food is different, their needs are different, and there are language barriers. They’re not established in the community and not connected in terms of knowing where to go for services.”

Though the study will only track the participants’ information, the program is geared toward making better food choices for the family, not just the individual. The family unit is expected to participate and educate one another.

“To have access and information available to us is very important,” said Isabel Magdaleno, 37, a Reiter employee and pilot program participant. “To have the information at work and classes at night makes it easy for us to know what is going on with our health. My family and I are in the process of getting healthier. I always wanted to do this, eat more fruits and vegetables and things like that, but now I am doing it.”

Although farm workers endure extensive and laborious working hours, it is wrong to presume their arduous work is a substitute for adequate physical exercise. This misconception, coupled with being predisposed to a genetic disorder, may be what is leading to the increase of diabetes and obesity among Latino farm workers.

“One of the guidelines of this work is evidence-based research,” said Dr. Marc Schenker, principal investigator for the pilot program research. “You can think they’re working in the fields, so they must be fit and healthy. But a healthy diet costs more. And cost is a large issue when you’re dealing with low-paid workers. This is an enormous health issue.”

“How do you get a farm worker who has been working all day long to go exercise?” asked Dr. Ray Lopez, a member of the RAC philanthropy group. “We’re trying to get people to buy into it. What’s really neat about this is, if we can effect the change in this community, there is no reason we can’t spread it to others.”

According to Barajas, that is the overarching plan of the pilot program. If successful, the goal would be to extend the program to all Latino farm working communities.