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Vermont immigrant farmworker advocates go abroad as they continue fight for better protections

A photo of two people standing with their hands clasped in front of a giant green poster reading "Welcome" and with the logo for Ahold Delhaize. The two people, a man and a woman, wear serious expressions. The man is in a grey suit and red-and-gold striped tie, and the woman is in a red patterned dress, black sweater and pink scarf.
Migrant Justice
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Courtesy
Will Lambek and Marita Canedo are two Migrant Justice organizers who flew to the Netherlands this week while Ahold Delhaize, the parent company of Hannaford, held its annual shareholders meeting. Migrant Justice continues to ask that Hannaford join the Milk With Dignity program to protect housing and labor rights for farmworkers.

Local immigrant farmworker advocates are going to new lengths — literally — to demand better protections.

Migrant Justice representatives flew to the Netherlands this week to attend the shareholders meeting for Ahold Delhaize, the parent company of Hannaford.

They continue to ask that Hannaford join the labor and housing rights program Milk With Dignity. It’s farmworker-created, and research shows its complaint line and enforcement mechanisms are successful at improving conditions for both farmworkers and farm owners.

“So we want to put a face to all our messages,” said organizer Marita Canedo. “And farmworkers have been really demanding that you know — to be listened [to], and we wanted to bring their voices, we wanted to bring their stories.”

And while some travel delays meant advocates couldn’t get inside the meeting, organizer Will Lambek says they spoke with company representatives outside. Though he says they had less luck when they tried to visit Ahold Delhaize headquarters.

“Just like when farmworkers have gone to the Hannaford headquarters in Maine, and asked to share the reality of what's happening in the Hannaford supply chain, executives there have been unwilling to listen," Lambek said. "And we received the same response here.”

English: A group of people holding signs, megaphones and a banner reading Human Rights Derechos Humanos. Español: Un grupo de personas alzando carteles, megáfonos y un banner que dice Human Rights Derechos Humanos.
Elodie Reed
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Vermont Public File
Migrant Justice has been asking Hannaford to join Milk With Dignity for nearly five years.

Ahold Delhaize told Vermont Public that it had no meeting scheduled with Migrant Justice the day farmworker advocates showed up, and that they could submit any questions in writing.

Hannaford said in a statement that it supports humane treatment of agricultural workers, that it requires suppliers to sign a code of conduct to ensure that labor laws are followed, and that it does assessments on farms through second and third parties, some of which include “engagement with farmworkers.”

“Any findings of the … assessments are addressed with the respective farmers for remediation,” the statement reads.

Migrant Justice says Hannaford has failed to protect farmworkers in its supply chain. And both Lambek and Canedo say farmworkers and their advocates are going to continue to fight.

The campaign to get Hannaford to join Milk With Dignity has been ongoing for nearly five years, and the group is planning more actions on May 1, also known as International Workers’ Day.

“It's … really important that they understand that our program is so valuable for brands — that we are going to continue looking for expansion, look into talking to them and other companies as well,” Canedo said.

New organic dairy products sourced from Milk With Dignity farms

An example of that expansion was announced this week by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). In a press release issued Wednesday, NOFA-VT said that Vermont Way Foods will add products made by farms enrolled in the Milk With Dignity program. The products will be distributed by Food Connects.

NOFA-VT said all four organizations will be working together for the next three years to make this happen. The effort is funded through a $1 million matching grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Market Development program.

“Opening up new markets for local, organic and fairly produced food is a necessary step towards a more just and sustainable food system in the northeast,” said NOFA-VT Executive Director Grace Oedel in the release. “We're excited and grateful to have the chance to work with these excellent collaborators to make this happen.”

“There's a lot of work left to be done before this new dairy line goes to the public,” Migrant Justice’s Will Lambek told Vermont Public. “But we're really excited that companies are searching us out, companies that understand the value of not only environmentally sustainable practices, but practices that are sustainable for the workers as well.”

Farmworker housing a focus in House this week

Lawmakers at the Vermont Statehouse this week heard testimony about the growing understanding around the need to improve farmworker housing in Vermont. That’s according to Dan Baker, who studies farmworker issues through the University of Vermont.

Baker testified in front of the Vermont House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry on Wednesday. He said housing repairs are underway through the relatively new repair and replacement loan programs funded by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) and administered by the Champlain Housing Trust.

“We are doing — either done or doing — projects on 35 farms,” Baker said.

According to Champlain Housing Trust, all of those projects amount to nearly $1 million in state funding. Julie Curtin with Champlain Housing Trust told Vermont Public in an email that 11 of those projects are completed, supporting housing for 41 farmworkers, and about 100 more farmworkers will get improved housing once the remaining projects are finished.

"The early success and promise of this pilot led VHCB to grant additional funds to sustain the capacity of the program for the next two years," Curtin wrote. "We anticipate that 412 total farmworkers will have better, healthier housing by the time our funding runs out in 2026. Additional funding would be necessary to fulfill the need that we know exists for farmers and farmworkers."

The funding for the VHCB loan programs came in 2022 after that board produced a 2021 report highlighting widespread health and safety concerns among farmworker housing.

In addition to the VHCB loan programs, UVM researcher Dan Baker pointed out the Milk With Dignity program is also contributing to better farmworker housing in the state.

Vermont farms that are enrolled in that program through the companies they supply milk through — currently, Ben & Jerry’s, and imminently, Vermont Way Foods — are paid a premium to uphold certain standards for their workers, including safe and clean housing. Otherwise, those farms risk losing their milk contract.

According to Milk With Dignity's five-year report that came out in 2022, the program covers a little over 200 farmworkers across about 50 dairy farms in Vermont and New York. In its first five years, Milk With Dignity conducted 182 housing inspections.

Baker also said farmers are paying closer attention to the issue.

“Many of whom are aware that if they have substandard housing, it is going to be harder to keep them, to keep their workers on their farms,” Baker said. “And that they personally just feel uncomfortable with that.”

A screenshot of a Zoom screen showing four photos of a run-down mobile home with rotting plywood siding and insulation falling onto the ground.
Screenshot
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YouTube
A slide from Dan Baker's presentation to the Vermont House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry showing a "before" photo of farmworker housing prior to repairs.
A Zoom screenshot showing three photos of a newly sided mobile home that's tidy around the edges.
Screenshot
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YouTube
A slide from Dan Baker's presentation to the Vermont House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry showing an "after" photo of farmworker housing following repairs.

At the same committee hearing, Ernest “Buster” Caswell, an advocate and farmworker at Champlain Orchards, urged lawmakers to look into providing more sources of funding for housing repairs.

“Right now we're capitalizing on one — the decision making of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, and they've done great work. I can't stress how great the board has come,” Caswell said. “But it's only one funding source. We need to continue capitalizing on that, so we continue this success.”

White River Junction Democrat Rep. Esme Cole voiced concern that as the Legislature and the Scott administration go back and forth over budget policy, this program could be overlooked.

“We’ve only been investing in this program for two and a half to three years, which is — it’s kind of wild to me,” Cole said. “That's something I feel like would slip through the cracks in terms of legislative understanding, and I don't think anyone would really be informed of that."

Cole added that it would be helpful to have better communication from on-the-ground advocates about how the Legislature can maintain funding for future farmworker housing improvements.

“How can we make this more formal?” she asked. “And I think we can brainstorm amongst ourselves, but also we really want to hear from you about what that would look like.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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