| Provided photo
By Carolyn O’Donnell
Like many of us, strawberry farmers are optimistic by nature. They plant their crop in November, with faith that by next April those small plants will have weathered the winter to begin producing harvestable fruit. But the COVID-19 pandemic is something entirely different.
In growing a hand-planted, hand-weeded, hand-harvested, and hand-packed fruit, the farmers are more concerned than ever for the health and safety of the field workers.
Like many in agriculture, strawberry farmers are always working diligently to protect farm workers while providing a consistent supply of this nutritious fruit to consumers. Strawberries are an important part of many healthy diets, especially among children. (One serving is packed with Vitamin C and antioxidants and studies have shown daily strawberry consumption provides an array of health benefits.)
But the welfare and health of farm workers is fundamental to farmers. At the California Strawberry Commission, we prioritized helping farmers to protect farm workers on numerous fronts.
The most important: Providing needed training tools and information in multiple languages on COVID-19 prevention in the fields and at home.
Fortunately, we had a running start with a robust food safety education and training program. The program emphasizes working healthy and proper handwashing: key behaviors to help limit the spread of COVID-19 as well as foodborne illness. The program includes materials in Spanish, English and Mixtec, and is supported annually by hands-on, interactive training workshops held throughout the state.
In this time of coronavirus, the commission education team started with one-on-one outreach to farmers, and developed resources to communicate directly with farm workers including public service announcements and videos in Spanish, Mixtec, and English, emphasizing preventative steps as well as in-field signage reminding workers about the importance of following all guidelines and recommendations regarding COVID-19.
In addition, the CSC has been involved in the development of prevention protocols now widely implemented throughout California strawberry farms. These include social distancing, increased handwashing facilities, face mask guidance, best cleaning and sanitizing of all field facilities and high traffic areas throughout the workday. Farmers have also been informed and educated about the importance of attention to employees that fall into “at-risk” categories, including age and underlying health conditions as well as Centers for Disease Control guidelines for monitoring of work crews and steps to be taken if an employee is ill and/or tests positive for COVID-19.
While California already had the most stringent standards in the nation regarding farm worker safety and field facilities, including hand-washing stations, as well as paid sick leave and health care, the governor recently issued a new executive order. This order mandates two-weeks paid sick leave for employees, including farm workers, who are ill or test positive for COVID-19.
While much has been done, the work to protect farm employees continues daily as we learn more and seek ways to improve. All of us know that we could not produce strawberries, or any other fruit or vegetable, without irrigators, planting crews, weeding crews or harvesting crews. The role of farm employees in growing and harvesting crops has been designated as “essential” and while worker safety is always a priority, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored their contributions to keeping our nation fed and healthy. As an industry, we know it is our responsibility to do the same for them.
Consumers are reminded that, according to the CDC and the Federal Food and Drug Administration, there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging.
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