By Erica Hellerstein.
All eyes follow the white van as it rolls into the alley.
More than 100 people — almost all migrant farmworkers from the nearby agricultural fields of Santa Cruz County — line up along a shaded edge of the street, tucked off a long road dotted with modest houses and neat lawns. Some lean on grocery carts, waiting for the delivery of boxes loaded with colorful sacks of carrots, potatoes, cabbage and onions, bundles of rice and beans, boxes of grapes, shampoo, toilet paper and laundry detergent. The arrival of the van means the boxes will be distributed soon.
Here, hidden in plain sight in one of California’s poorest counties, a clandestine operation delivers supplies to people who can’t afford the food they harvest for others and are so worried about immigration enforcement that they are afraid to visit official food banks and sometimes even grocery stores.
“They live in constant terror of being deported and having their families torn apart,” says Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families and organizer of the operation. “They don’t go anywhere. They go to work and when they have to, they go to the store, and then they hide.”
Organizers say threats of immigration raids like the recent roundup at a string of poultry producers in Mississippi, the largest workplace sting in a decade, coupled with policy changes like the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule that could deny green cards to immigrants who use food stamps and other public assistance, have only intensified the fear.
Lopez’s work-around, a monthly food bank run in partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County, has been operating for the past year. Patrons aren’t asked about their immigration status.
“When I’m out there at the (public) distribution sites, I’ve been noticing that there are clients picking up food for other clients,” says Rosario Valerio, the nutrition program manager at Second Harvest in Santa Cruz, which has seen a drop in patrons in recent years that some workers link to fears of signing up for food. “And one time a client said, ‘I’m getting this food for my neighbor because they’re afraid to come out and they don’t want to come to public places to get food.’ So we’ve been seeing that a lot.”
Stephanie Nishio, director of programs at the California Association of Food Banks, said she has talked to other organizations in California and not heard of any doing something similar.
In Santa Cruz, participants find the location of the food bank through word of mouth, or from a local farmworker who makes calls in the days leading up to the event. Lopez attributes the high turnout — between 100 to 200 people a month, with some participants traveling from as far away as Salinas — to the hidden locale.
“If it was in a main street and even on a sidewalk, they wouldn’t be coming.”
This time, the distribution draws nearly 150 people, who, over several hours, file in front of a row of white plastic tables piled with supplies, loading up shopping carts with everything from food to baby wipes. A little boy makes a face at a crate of grapes gripped in his mother’s arms. “I want candy!” he frowns, pointing to his friend’s box of Dots. His mother, instead, plucks and offers a large grape from the vine. He reluctantly pops it in his mouth.
A young mother, one of the few willing to talk despite her immigration status, says at first she was hesitant even to go to the alleyway. But she needed some of the supplies they were handing out—especially soap, diapers, and fruit for her baby. “If we shut ourselves in our houses with fear, where are we going to go?” she asks.
Fear is a predominant theme in the conversation, even for people like Ernestina Solorio, a farmworker with legal status to work in the U.S. “But even with my permission I am still afraid,” she explains, fixing her eyes on the line. “I don’t feel secure. Truthfully, as a Latina, I don’t feel safe, because of everything that’s happening.”
On August 3, a gunman armed with an assault rifle opened fire on shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 people in an attack that is now being investigated as a domestic terrorism case. The suspect reportedly told investigators that he wanted to target Mexicans.
Solorio says the anxiety has trickled down to her 12-year-old son, who, despite being a U.S. citizen, is still afraid. “He asks: ‘Is something going to happen, mom? I don’t want them to take you!’ I try to reassure him, but he feels afraid. He looks at other people and sees what is happening.”
For Solorio, Lopez’s involvement in the community has fostered an environment of trust that keeps her coming back, both as a client and a volunteer. “Here you feel secure and they help out and you feel safe. And what they give out is really helpful,” she says—especially food. A single mother with four kids, Solorio’s salary from working in the fields is barely enough to support the family once she pays rent and other expenses. “I need everything they can give me,” she says.
Lopez says such economic instability is not uncommon among the farmworkers she works with, many of whom struggle to make ends meet.
“They can’t afford to pay for the food that they harvest. They can’t afford a decent diet. This is the kind of life they live: impoverished, abused, living in constant fear. This is no way to treat essential workers that feed the country.”
Lopez’s underground food banking project appears to be the only one of its kind in the Bay Area. Other food banks and immigrant advocacy groups said they aren’t aware of any similar programs.
Cat Cvengros, vice president of development and marketing for Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, says announcements from the federal government about changes to immigration to supposed ICE raids to the addition of a citizenship question on the census have elevated the sense of fear in the community.
“This fear means that food banks like the Second Harvest of Silicon Valley are now in the regular habit of combating fear,” she said. “And it’s ongoing … because the fear confuses the folks that need our services. These individuals that hear these threats are thinking, ‘I’m going to stay back and not going to go to the food distribution’.”
In the alleyway, the numbers don’t dwindle until the supplies run out, when the sun dips and shade floods the street.
Lopez and the volunteer farmworker stay until the last bags of produce are given away and plastic tables hauled off. The volunteer sits cross-legged on the ground. Her lower back, she explains, is sore from spending days hunched over in the field; her knees raw from kneeling, the wrinkles in her palms stained with red lines of ink from the strawberry harvest that won’t wash out. She says she earns about $5.50 an hour, and tries to stretch her paychecks between rent, her children, food, and her mother back in Mexico, to whom she likes to send money whenever possible.
“I know what it’s like to not earn a lot,” she says. “So I feel happy to help the people here. I feel content that people who come can get the necessities.”