Dietary Intake and Food Security Among Migrant Farm Workers in Pennsylvania

Year: 2003

Research Center: The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Investigator: Cason, Katherine L., Sergio Nieto Montenegro, America Chavez Martinez, Nan Lv, and Anastasia Snyder

Institution: Clemson University

Project Contact:
Katherine L. Cason, Ph.D., R.D., Professor
205 Poole Agricultural Center
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Clemson University
Clemson, SC 29634-0316
Phone: 864-656-0539


While the labor of migrant farm workers gives the U.S. population access to high-quality, affordable foods, migrant workers themselves often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, poor health status, poverty, and low job security. They often live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions that contribute to a myriad of health, mental health, social, and behavioral problems, including chronic health conditions, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other co-morbid mental health problems. This study examines critical components of health and well-being: the nutrition, food security, and food sufficiency maintenance practices of migrant farm workers in Pennsylvania, and the impact of food program participation on these outcomes.

The study methodology involved the collection of quantitative and qualitative data using focus group interviews and surveys in five Pennsylvania agricultural counties. The focus groups, conducted with 117 participants, had three main objectives: 1) to identify barriers to achieving good nutrition; 2) to understand the programmatic, social, cultural, and lifestyle factors responsible for these barriers; and 3) to reveal practices employed to increase food security.

The survey was administered to 401 participants. It consisted of the USDA food security instrument, information on utilization of food assistance programs, 24-hour dietary recall data, and demographic characteristics. The data were compared to an existing dataset from the Current Population Survey (CPS) to determine how factors such as ethnicity, migrant status (seasonal, settled), and other factors affect the use of food assistance programs among migrant workers.

Study findings indicate that the migrant population is diverse and its composition varies from county to county. The Pennsylvania migrant population consists mainly of Spanish-speaking workers from Mexico. Some are ""settled"" while others follow a migrant stream originating in Florida and moving on to New York or Indiana after their work in Pennsylvania.

This study examined the food security of migrant farm workers. While the majority of the participants surveyed were food secure, 8.9 percent were food insecure, and 4.7 percent were food insecure with hunger. The CPS sample indicated a higher level of food insecurity among migrant farm workers than the Pennsylvania sample, but with fewer participants experiencing food insecurity with hunger. A higher percentage of the Pennsylvania sample participates in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs while more of the CPS sample participates in WIC, FSP, and food pantries.

Based on the 24-hour recall intake data, a considerable number of participants did not meet the recommended intake levels for food groups and/or certain nutrients. Indeed, a large number of participants reported consuming no fruit, vegetables, or dairy products.

The focus group interviews revealed additional information that could help explain the survey results. Participants appeared to be concerned with a variety of nutrition and diet-related health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and anemia. Focus group participants cited issues affecting their food choices such as flavor, habit, tradition, and pleasure. Reported barriers to adequate access and consumption included the perception that American foods are of low quality and expensive, lack of transportation, language barriers, unfamiliarity with their community of residence and what foods are available, and difficulty in identifying foods by their name.

Participants in all focus groups mentioned that their eating habits changed dramatically after arrival in the United States. For example, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables decreased because of the perceived poor quality and high price. Practices to attain food security included sharing with friends and family, avoiding certain foods and beverages because of the cost, eating larger quantities of beans, rice and tortillas, buying food on sale, eating less, and maximizing use of leftover foods. Participants made suggestions regarding the content and format for educational programs. They stated that they need information about how to feed babies and children, how to make more nutritious and cheaper food, how to use American foods, weight loss information for both children and adults, and information about diabetes. All focus groups mentioned that the programs should be fun and interactive, be conducted in Spanish, and involve cooking.

Study findings indicate a need for culturally appropriate health and nutrition education, focusing on how to prepare healthy, nutritious, and inexpensive meals as diet-related disease risk reduction. Additional funding could enhance existing health and nutrition education programs such as those operating through the Cooperative Extension Service and local health departments. Culturally appropriate educational programs could be developed to target the migrant farm worker population. Bilingual educators indigenous to the farm worker community could deliver them.