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The Face of Hunger: Migrant workers in southern Minn.

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Alejandro Calvillo, 7, and Jackie Calvillo, 9, of Mission, Texas, children of migrant workers who come to Montgomery, Minn. each summer to work, spend the afternoon playing at a local park with their father, Juan Calvillo, on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. The family of six is staying at the Monty Hotel in downtown Montgomery.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Every year, workers from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas gather their children and clothes and drive 1,500 miles to Minnesota, in an annual migration that spans generations.

Most will head for the vegetable processing plants sprinkled across southern Minnesota, where they work for a handful of companies, including Seneca Foods Corp. They process peas and corn and other vegetables that wind up on your grocery store shelf.  

  FOOD SHELF IS A BUSY PLACE

A number of the workers arrive with almost nothing, having spent the money they made the year before. That brings many to the Salvation Army Montgomery Food Shelf, 50 miles south of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where their numbers are a challenge for volunteers.

On a recent Tuesday, the room hums with the singsong Spanish of the arrivals. Volunteers struggle to communicate with the workers, many of whom are U.S. citizens or permanent residents of Mexican heritage.

Housed in a former convent, the food shelf normally sees a significant jump in the number of visitors during the summer, largely due to the influx of migrant workers.

Estimates on the number of migrant workers employed in Minnesota vary. Some advocates place their number at more than 20,000.

Shopping
Maricela Cuica, 25, from Texas, shops for groceries at The Salvation Army Food Shelf in Montgomery, Minn. on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Cuica is a migrant worker here to work for the summer. Seven months pregnant, she is here alone, with a car borrowed from family members.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

"Space is a huge issue here, and when you have 40 households in three hours, you have people waiting," food shelf director Dodie Braith said.

The food shelf is so busy that workers and their families sometimes must wait on the couches, in corners or outside, even when it's raining.

Migrant workers account for about one-fourth of the food shelf use each year. To help buy enough food, Braith obtained a $1,792 grant from Hunger Solutions, an advocacy group in St. Paul.

She stocks plenty of dried pinto beans, green chilies, long grain rice, diced tomatoes with jalapeno peppers and corn tortilla shells. The food shelf also offers plenty of canned fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, it has fresh produce.

That's good news for Jesus Garza. For his family, the tiny food shelf is a lifeline. 

"The first days, the first weeks, they're just terrible," he said.

  MANY ARRIVE WITH NOTHING

Garza, 31, and his family arrived from Brownsville, Texas, in April. He and his wife Jessica, 24, spent most of their savings to make it to Minnesota and set up their temporary household.

On a recent night, they cooked dinner in their small apartment, as their three children watched television and the small window air conditioner worked overtime.   

Jobs are scarce in Texas, so migrant workers come to Minnesota to find work in the fields and processing plants. The hours can be long but that means overtime, which many of the workers want.

Workers sometimes arrive weeks before they get their first paycheck. Until then, many don't have enough money to meet all their needs, including food.

View photos of some migrant workers who are in Minnesota for the summer. 

"[We] pay deposit, pay rent all at once," Garza said.

By the time they pay their housing expenses and gas, there's little left for food at the start of the summer.

"It's not only us; we got the kids," Garza said. "That's what our worry is, 'cause they gotta eat. We can be two to three days with water, maybe something just light. But they don't wait."

Now that both Jesus and Jessica Garza are working, the family has plenty of food. They work 12-hour days, often seven days a week. They're grateful for the jobs.

Jesus Garza, a laborer, has been coming to Minnesota since he was 16, following in his father's footsteps. He makes $10 an hour. Others make less. 

His wife inspects peas. They'll save as much money as they can before heading back to Texas in the fall, then use those funds to pay living expenses there. Their savings, and some unemployment, should help them make it through the winter. They hope to have just enough left over next spring to return to Montgomery and start over.

Anita Swift has seen this story play out time and time again. Swift, center manager for the Elysian Area Learning Center, runs a Head Start program for migrant children. She watches families arrive, running on fumes.

  A CHOICE BETWEEN HOUSING AND FOOD

Besides food, a family's initial expenses can be a tough hurdle.

"There's the deposit on the phone, there's deposit on electric, there's deposits on other things," Swift said.

When families first arrive, they have a decision to make between paying for food and paying for housing. Food, which often takes a back seat, is a big expense.

Closing the food shelf
Workers close the Salvation Army Food Shelf for the day in Montgomery, Minn. on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. In 2010, migrant workers accounted for about one-fourth of the food shelf use.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

"These families are coming into a small town. We don't have those big box grocery stores," Swift said. "They're the small, local groceries that are easy to get to, but sometimes they're a little bit pricier." 

Some families continue to rely on the food shelf through the summer --- or on food stamps -- but many just need a temporary boost.  Not everyone finds good housing.

"We're looking at small communities that don't have a lot of rental properties available, so you have to take what you can get," Swift said.

That can mean cramming multiple families into an apartment -- or living in a hotel.

Even after workers start receiving paychecks, not all are eating healthy food. That's important, because health care workers who treat migrant workers say the population struggles with diabetes and obesity -- problems complicated by processed food that is high in carbohydrates and fat.

Advocates worry that the families are eating too much food that makes them feel full -- including such staples as tortillas, rice and potatoes -- and not enough healthy food like fresh produce.

  POOR HOUSING CAN MEAN POOR DIET

Poor housing conditions also can make it hard to eat well.

That's the case for Juan Calvillo and his family. Calvillo lives with his wife and four children in an old hotel. They all sleep in one room, and cook in the other. They didn't have money for a deposit on an apartment. 

"I like to cook, so I try to make good food," Calvillo said. "But I don't have time, I don't have space, I don't have a stove."

Instead, Calvillo uses three electric pans and a blender.

"I try to make Mexican food," he said. It's very, very hard."

"I try to make good food, but I don't have time, I don't have space, I don't have a stove."

The Calvillos, who live on about $30,000 a year, are just about at the poverty line. But Calvillo thinks his family will be fine, and eat better, if he can find an apartment he can afford.

"Last year, I rent apartment, and the food was different," he recalled.

His 12-year-old son Brian nodded in agreement.

"The food was better last year," the boy said. "It was healthier ... and it tasted better."    

Calvillo wishes Seneca would provide housing for families. The company does provide trailers for workers to live in but families with children cannot use them.

The quality of that housing has stirred controversy.

Centro Campesino, an Owatonna-based organization that fights for better living conditions for migrant workers, took the company to task over the living conditions. Workers, who used electric pans to cook in a nearby park, still tell stories about being drenched in the rain while they cooked.

The company later built a community kitchen. Seneca officials declined to do an interview for this story.

  MIGRANT WORK IS A TOUGH ROUTINE

Despite the hardship of migrant work, Calvillo is proud of what he does, and tells friends they should consider it. 

"I've shown my kids you have to work hard; things aren't going to fall out of the sky for us," he said. "At the end of the day, it's worth it."

In Texas, he'll use the money to survive the winter, maybe make improvements to his house. 

Still, Calvillo doesn't want his children to be migrant workers. He hopes they'll get an education, and warns them that if they don't, the annual trek across the country will be their life.

Each year, migrant workers settle into a tough routine. Come fall, when the harvest is over and the frost settles in, many will head home to Texas, only to come back next spring.

Jesus Garza also will leave when fall arrives, but he'll do one other thing before he heads out -- donate to the food shelf.

"That way you know it's there," he said. "Not maybe for me in the winter, but for other local people. They use it, and I use it, and it's time for me to pay back, appreciate it."

When he returns next year, for another summer of work, the food shelf will be there waiting.

Return to Ground Level: Hunger »