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Farmworker awareness week highlights local contributions, Vecinos programs

Vecinos hosted a celebration of farmworkers during National Farmworker Awareness Week.
Lilly Knoepp
Vecinos hosted a celebration of farmworkers during National Farmworker Awareness Week.

As spring is greening up the mountains and amateur gardeners are planting in the backyard, farmers and farmworkers are heading into a busy season to grow food across the state.

The 20-year-old nonprofit organization Vecinos provides medical care for uninsured and underinsured farmworkers in the state’s westernmost counties. On the first floor of the Health and Human Services building on Western Carolina University’s campus in Cullowhee, Vecinos operates a clinic to provide free services for uninsured and underinsured patients.

Cheryl Hernandez, a community health worker with Vecinos, pointed to a lab where patient’s prescriptions are picked up and introduced Luis Collaco who works in the clinic’s pharmacy.

“Hola Luis, Como estas?“ Herandez said. Then she asked Collaco to describe what he does as a technician in the pharmacy.

“Our providers usually send in their prescriptions. They see patients throughout the night from 5 to 9pm. Then we usually dispense them and give them to the patient,” Collaco said. He pointed to a row of brown paper bags with prescription labels ready to be taken out with the mobile team.

The Cullowhee Clinic, which opened in 2014, and is the organization’s only brick and mortar location, but Vecinos also offers care through mobile clinic services in Buncombe, Transylvania and Haywood counties.

In their most recent annual report (2022), the nonprofit provided 1,078 doctor’s visits, 470 over-the-counter medications, 558 prescription medications and performed over 3,700 labs.

On a recent Wednesday, just upstairs from the clinic, Vecinos welcomed farmworkers, farmers and community members together to celebrate Farmworkers Awareness week. The national week of action seeks to bring attention to the contributions made by farmworkers across the country that grow and harvest the food on the nation’s tables.

At the same time, the national Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs held a long-sleeve shirt drive to provide this crucial resource for farmworkers. A long-sleeve shirt can prevent exposure to dangerous pesticides and help block sun exposure during long hours working outside.

More than 20,000 cases of doctor-diagnosed pesticide poisoning are reported annually, according to a 2011 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report. Regulations around pesticide application in a field where people are working have varied over the years. Legal challenges have halted the latest prohibition on spraying fields with workers in them.

Ramiro Zarate, a farmworker and Vecinos patient talks to the crowd as Vecinos CEO Marianne Martinez translates.
Lilly Knoepp
Ramiro Zarate, a farmworker and Vecinos patient talks to the crowd as Vecinos CEO Marianne Martinez translates.

This year the program collected 7,441 long-sleeve shirts.

Ramiro Zarate, a farmworker and Vecinos patient, said he has spent more than two decades in the fields or on farms doing a variety of jobs from milking cows to picking strawberries.

He first met Vecinos when they visited Shelton Farm in Jackson County.

He said he is thankful for his job, and the medical services he received from Vecinos has been crucial to his well-being.

“I have to celebrate Vecinos because since they're beginning whenever I started going to them,” Zarate said during the program. “I think I've been the most problematic patient.”

In 2022, the average earning of all farmworkers was $16.62 per hour – that’s about half of the average hourly wages for all workers in the United States, according to nonprofit think tank the Economic Policy Institute

Despite lagging behind other roles, farmworkers have experienced a 28 percent increase in wages from 2000 to 2022, driven by inflation and a decrease in workers, according to theUSDA.

Vecinos provides services for families who are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

During the event, the community was invited to write thank you cards for farmworkers in Spanish.
Lilly Knoepp
During the event, the community was invited to write thank you cards for farmworkers in Spanish.

Vecinos was recently awarded $2 million from Yield Giving established by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

The funds will be used to help with the WNC Community Health Hub in Franklin, according to Vecinos CEO Marianne Martinez. The hub will open in 2025.

“This is our solidarity with the community that they can come to have one place to find all the services that they need in a situation,” Martinez said.

The organization values patient respect, Martinez said.

Patients can also access care without the worry that often accompanies medical visits.

"They won't be going home with health bills that are out of reach, that are going to bankrupt them,” she said.

The Community Health Hub, which is set to open later this year, will house all types of services including the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic; the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance from Waynesville; El Centro Comunitario of Macon County, a Hispanic community advocacy group; and Asheville-based Pisgah Legal Services, which provides legal services to low-income people.

Editor's note: Vecinos CEO Marianne Martinez serves on BPR's Board.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.