ST. ALBANS — Imagine moving 3,000 miles away. Imagine adjusting to a different climate, a new language, and foreign people. Imagine losing familiar sights, sounds, tastes (imagine no maple syrup on the breakfast table!) and smells.
For migrant workers from Guatemala and Mexico, these imaginings are a reality. It is estimated that a population of 1,200 Latinos/as are now living and working in Vermont, and while nothing can be done about cold temperatures and snow, English-speaking Vermonters or the new landscape, migrant workers can find a bit of homely comfort something they can control: their food.
With the help of the project called, Huertas, which means “vegetable gardens” in Spanish, homegrown food has become possible for many migrant families. The program helps about 25 families plant kitchen gardens with familiar fruits and vegetables each year, and the project also facilitates research on the issues behind food access for migrant workers.
One of Huertas’ leaders is 34-year-old Naomi Wolcott-MacCausland, a Fairfield native who spent four years in Central America after college and who now works through the University of Vermont Extension office in St. Albans to coordinate and help plant kitchen gardens for Latinos/as living in Franklin County.
Wolcott-MacCausland said in an interview on Tuesday that the four-year-old program, which began as an informal project in response to food access issues, meets with interested migrant families looking for help with growing food.
“Our ultimate goal has always been helping individuals who want to grow food,” she said. “We try and meet that need.”
Though Huertas has not had funding in the past, the program recently received two grants to put towards its work: $1,000 from the Vermont Community Foundation, and $5,000 from the Harris and Frances Block Foundation based out of Vermont.
According to Wolcott-MacCausland, the grants would help move along their work. This includes providing Latino families with gardening materials, identifying familiar foods to the families, and purchasing seeds of plants that are not usually found in Vermont but could be grown in the state.
“It’s important to us to work with individuals to identify what [Latino families are] used to eating,” Wolcott-MacCausland said. “This is one of the few connections – through food – to their culture.”
Helping migrant families identify, plant, and grow their food is done not just by Wolcott-MacCausland, but many others who collaborate on the Huertas project.
“There are many different people that have been involved and continue to be involved,” Wolcott-MacCausland said. These people include student coordinators, community volunteers, local greenhouse owners, and UVM faculty conducting research.
One faculty member is Teresa Mares, a 35-year-old assistant professor of anthropology who became involved in Huertas in 2011. Prior to coming to UVM and continuing today, Mares has been investigating the food access situation for migrant workers across the country, and she is currently trying to establish an understanding by collecting food access data for the Latino population in Vermont.
“There’s no food security data on migrant workers in the state, period,” Mares said by phone on Tuesday. Because the population is fairly new and small, Mares said, “There’s been no attempt to get a number.”
However, according to studies done elsewhere in the U.S., migrant workers have three to four times less access to affordable and nutritious food than the average American population. For migrant workers, especially those without legal documentation, lower wages, cultural barriers, and lack of transportation make going to the grocery store much more difficult than it might be for the average American.
Mares wants to see what the facts are specifically in Vermont, and she recently won the first $5,000 Frank M. Bryan Vermont Research Award for her research project, which will be continued this coming summer.
“[The project] definitely raises questions about people’s attachment to food,” Mares said.
Wolcott-MacCausland echoed Mares in speaking about the importance of food accessibility and food familiarity. “I think for anyone, there is a deep connection to the food you grew up eating, the food you’ve been surrounded with your whole life,” she said.
To learn more or to become involved in Huertas, contact Naomi Wolcott MacCausland at 802-524-6501 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.