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A double-decker bus is taking health services directly to farmworkers in Half Moon Bay

Author: Jessica Flores

Published: December 16, 2022

Father Jose Corral of Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Church blesses the interior of the new ALAS mobile services bus in Half Moon Bay, California on Dec. 12.

Don Feria, Freelance Photographer / Special to The Chronicle

Farmworkers in California were hailed as the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic who played a critical role in keeping grocery stores stocked with food, despite being one of the hardest-hit communities in the state, with higher rates of infection as well as mental health challenges amid crowded living conditions and limited access to health care.

In the Bay Area coastal community of Half Moon Bay, advocates have launched an effort to help agricultural workers facing continued challenges from the ongoing pandemic — such as difficulty taking time off from work for medical appointments — by delivering some essential services directly to them.

The small, wealthy and largely white city is known for its well-established, family-friendly farms, where much of the labor is performed by immigrant Latino farmworkers. Half Moon Bay also boasts a bustling dining and farmers’ market scene, multimillion-dollar homes, a Ritz-Carlton hotel overlooking the ocean and its famous surfing competition at Mavericks beach, as well as glorious Pacific views along the crescent-shaped bay.

According to the latest available census data, the median annual household income for the city’s roughly 11,000 residents is $137,346.

The Farmworker Equity Express mobile resource center makes its way along Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 12.

Don Feria, Freelance Photographer / Special to The Chronicle

In an effort to help bridge the health equity gap for several hundred farmworkers, advocates say, health care workers will travel weekly in a retrofitted, double-decker bus from farm to farm to provide mental health services, education classes and other resources to farmworkers there.

Starting in January, health care workers from the nonprofit Ayudando Latinos a Soñar will visit farms five days a week in the “Farmworker Equity Express” bus to supply farmworkers with free on-site and virtual counseling services, general education and art classes, and virtual appointments with health care providers. The nonprofit is partnering with San Mateo County officials and nearby colleges to provide the resources, said Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, the group’s executive director.

The farmworker community is an underserved population who often can’t afford to take time off from work to go to medical appointments or the cost of medical care, said David Martinez, a psychology professor at the University of San Francisco and a clinical supervisor at ALAS. Transportation is another barrier for many farmworkers, he said.

In Half Moon Bay, ALAS delivered basic supplies, protective equipment and other resources to farmworkers during the pandemic. Hernandez-Arriaga said many expressed the desire for mental health resources due to stress caused by economic and health concerns, and missing their families who live in their home countries.

ALAS founder Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga (center) talks with farmworkers at Cabrillo Farms in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 12.

Don Feria, Freelance Photographer / Special to The Chronicle

“When you think about all the time that they spend away from their family, the long hours (of work), the stress on their bodies, the pay that they receive, and the cost of living is extremely challenging,” said Hernandez-Arriaga.

“We started to realize that the resources needed to keep coming directly to them,” she added.

This week, Hernandez-Arriaga and her staff took the bus out to a farm to give farmworkers a first look at the colorful double-decker. Before taking off on Monday afternoon, the ALAS team blessed the bus by singing songs that honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico who is celebrated by Catholics on Dec. 12, the Day of the Virgin. The bus was also blessed by the Rev. Jose Corral of Our Lady of the Pillar church with a prayer and holy water.

The double-decker is hard to miss with its colorful print wrap that was inspired by the Otomi pattern, the traditional Mexican embroidery, and designed by Bay Area artists Antonio Rivera, Tim Gatto and Raquel Gatto. The wrap is a pastel yellow with designs of a raised fist, flowers, fish and birds, as well as the words “Farmworker Equity Express” in English and Spanish on each side of the bus.

Public and private gathering spaces are available in the Farmworker Equity Express bus.

Don Feria, Freelance Photographer / Special to The Chronicle

The second floor of the bus is equipped with Wi-Fi, seats with tables, large TVs and rooms that will be used for virtual appointments.

ALAS worked with nonprofits Life Science Cares Bay Area and the Gilead Foundation, as well as the biotechnology company Genentech to build a “state of the art” bus, said Hernandez-Arriaga.

Aisha Baro, executive director of Life Science Cares Bay Area, said the program is “transformational” as it will also give farmworkers access to preventive health services.

“It’s an equity bridge but it’s also a way of saying that the farmworker community matters,” she said. “That they’re worthy of our investment, that they’re seen because they haven’t been seen in the past.”

ALAS founder Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga shows off the new mobile services bus in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 12.

Don Feria, Freelance Photographer / Special to The Chronicle

The first stop was at Cabrillo Farms, where ALAS brought pan dulce and Mexican hot chocolate to farmworkers during their lunch hour.

It was Luis Mojica’s first time seeing the bus in person after seeing photos of it on ALAS’ Facebook page. Mojica, who has worked at Cabrillo Farms for 26 years, said ALAS previously helped him apply for Medi-Cal and that he plans to use the resources offered through the bus program.

“I’m happy because we’ve never had this kind of help before,” said Mojica, “much less having someone come to check on you.”

Jessica Flores (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Email: Twitter: @jesssmflores


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