Clinic Steps Up Efforts to Protect the Hands that Feed WNC

Jul 30, 2019

A health clinic that’s been serving migrant farm workers in Western Carolina for almost 60 years is hoping a new initiative will spur more conversations about the people who harvest your produce.  

Blue Ridge Health in Hendersonville started serving the migrant patient population in 1963, a year after President John F Kennedy signed the Migrant Health Act into law. That enabled the clinic to receive federal funding. 

While the clinic continues to serve individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have access to healthcare, Blue Ridge Health this year is looking at a different way to assist patients, who sometimes spend 12-14 hours in the fields.  

“I went to a camp and one of the workers had his hands really, really dirty,” Jackie Antiveros, outreach coordinator at Blue Ridge Health, said. 

“What I didn’t know is that the tomato plant gives off this green powder, and it goes and it builds on their hands. Because they don’t have the gloves, this just builds over time on their hands, and they’re using bleach to wipe this dirt off.” 

Antiveros says sometimes workers arrive to their jobs without the appropriate protective gear, like gloves and hats. Or they might receive gloves at the start of the season, and a few months in, they’re no longer effective. 

That’s why she says the clinic is starting to collect protective gear, like long sleeves, hats, and gloves, as a form of preventative medicine. Work-related risks include exposure to pesticides, respiratory problems, and a poisoning called green tobacco sickness.

“It gives us a really good access point to the workers,” Claire Chang, a MedServ fellow at Blue Ridge Health, said. “Because the other big things from a public health standpoint that we’re worried about are chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension that are extremely large issues among our migrant population.”

Chang says she hopes the new clothing drive also raises awareness about the people who come to the region each year to help harvest fruits and vegetables. Blue Ridge Health is also developing a program to bring community leaders out into the fields and migrant camps to meet seasonal farm workers and hear their stories.

“To get to know them, their dreams, their hopes, what makes them laugh, what makes them sad,” Antiveros said. “I want people to see that as well, not not just see them as people who are here to harvest our fruits and vegetables. 

The USDA reports North Carolina ranks among the top ten states that receive workers on seasonal farm work visas, but that doesn’t account for the additional number of workers who are undocumented.

Those interested in contributing to the clothing drive can contact Jackie Antiveros or drop off items at Blue Ridge Health in Hendersonville.