BY JAMIE BECKETT | SEPTEMBER 18, 2023
Sukkot is a time when we give thanks for the harvest, and here in the Bay Area we are fortunate enough to celebrate a bounty of locally grown fruits and vegetables. But how often do most of us think about the backbreaking work required to get that fresh produce to our tables?
I know I didn’t. I prided myself for supporting farmers markets and organic farmers, but I seldom thought about the people in Half Moon Bay and elsewhere who bend and sweat, enduring sun and heat and thirst to plant and harvest my peas and mushrooms, my strawberries and Brussels sprouts.
The tragic shootings that killed seven people in January on two Half Moon Bay mushroom farms exposed the uncomfortable truth of farmworkers’ miserable living conditions. When elected officials came to Half Moon Bay after the shootings, they found multiple families living crammed into shipping containers, trailers and dilapidated shacks — without insulation, running water or space to cook.
When we turn our thoughts to Sukkot after the High Holidays, perhaps these crude dwellings can remind us of the flimsy huts that sheltered the Israelites as they journeyed in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt.
Most of us view Half Moon Bay as a bucolic getaway, a place to relax while gazing at the blue-black waves and jagged cliffs. But the sad truth of our coastal communities is that many who work on farms cannot afford the food they toil to produce.
Some farmworkers, especially undocumented ones, earn less than the state minimum wage of $15.50 an hour. Even for those who earn minimum wage or more, decent housing is out of reach. According to data collected by Marc Berman, a Democratic Assembly member whose district includes Half Moon Bay, farmworkers would have to spend 97% of all they earn to pay the average monthly rent.
Also out of reach for many is adequate food, clean water or even the funds to buy basic necessities like soap, toothpaste and diapers.
“These are essential items that most of us take for granted,” Luis Enrique “Kique” Bazán told me. He is the assistant director at ALAS, a nonprofit aid group in Half Moon Bay. ALAS, which marked its 10th anniversary this year, is an acronym for Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, which means “Helping Latinos to Dream.”
The group supports farmworkers, primarily in Half Moon Bay, with services that include water deliveries, health care, mental health services, help with medical bills, education and farmworker advocacy.
Even for those who earn minimum wage or more, decent housing is out of reach.
ALAS operates a food pantry and collaborates with other nonprofits to distribute groceries to farms, and it coordinates a weekly lunch to farmworkers.
“We worry a lot about people having enough food,” Bazán said.
The need for help in the San Mateo County Coastside community is vast — and growing. The number of people ALAS serves soared 67% in the past two years alone. In addition to the food pantry, where demand grew 25% since the spring, ALAS’ other big growth area is its farmworker health program, which travels to area farms several times a week to connect workers with health insurance, dental care, doctor’s visits and health education.
Housing remains a pressing issue. ALAS and the nonprofit Mercy Housing are working together to build approximately 40 affordable apartments for senior farmworkers on land owned by Half Moon Bay. In June, San Mateo County received a $5 million state grant to build as many as 50 manufactured homes on city land. More than half of these would be allocated to low-income farmworkers.
These efforts will offer some relief, but more is needed.
Here is how my community is helping. At Erev Sukkot services at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on Sept. 29, our FarmMitzvah Task Force will be collecting $15 Safeway gift cards for ALAS to distribute to farmworkers. You can bring one gift card or you can bring a dozen — but they must each be for $15. I hope you’ll join us.
Why this unusually specific request? Putting the dollar figure at $15 ensures that ALAS has enough for everyone it serves, explained Bazán. People use the extra money to buy items that ALAS and other nonprofits don’t or can’t supply, such as added protein for healthier meals and essential household items like toilet paper, baby formula, laundry detergent, disinfectants and more.
“Even $15 can make a difference in people’s lives,” said Bazán, who will speak more about farmworker challenges at services that night.
You can also help by making a donation to ALAS or one of the other aid groups on the coast, by volunteering, or by urging state and federal legislators to support funding for farmworker housing.
“It’s been years of people not really looking at what is happening on the coast,” Bazán said. “What we are seeing now is care.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.