by Heather John Fogarty

On August 7, ICE agents swept through seven Mississippi chicken processing plants in a targeted raid that resulted in 680 arrests of undocumented immigrant workers and untold family separations. It was the largest single-state workplace immigration raid in US history. The raids have left an already vulnerable agricultural community more so, and the effects have been felt as far as Los Angeles, where national headlines have real time impact on those producing our food and the communities they feed. “Over the last several months, particularly at our Central Avenue Farmers Market where we have the highest concentration of Mexican and Central American customers, the drop in market participation is most notable right after any ICE raid or immigration policy announcement from the Trump Administration,” says Valeria Valazquez Dueñas of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of LA (SEE-LA), a nonprofit that manages six farmers markets in Central and East Los Angeles communities.

“We’ve seen a big difference in market attendance, especially at Echo Park and Central Avenue,” says Diego Hernandez of Ayala Farms in Riverdale. He sells fresh peppers, carrots, cabbage and strawberries at farmers markets throughout the Los Angeles area, and sees the greatest impact at markets with higher immigrant communities. “Customers say they’ve heard rumors that if they sign up for CalFresh, ICE will be given their information,” he says. “People are scared.”

Diego Hernandez (photo credit: Karen Ard @farmtotablela)

A week after the Mississippi raid this past August, as the Central Avenue Farmers Market in South Los Angeles was drawing to a close, Florisel Rojas was tallying amounts for CalFresh sales. “Usually, they’re around $3,000,” she says. “Today they’ll be closer to $1,000 if we’re lucky.” Rojas, who manages the Central Avenue Farmers Market, estimates that about 90% of farmers’ income at the market comes from CalFresh EBT. With an estimated 60 percent drop in market attendance, Rojas is concerned both for the farmers who sell at the markets and the negative impacts on health and nutrition for families who are not accessing their benefits for fresh produce. CalFresh is California’s food stamp (SNAP) program, and is available to immigrant households in which at least one member is a citizen, has a green card or refugee status. Undocumented residents who are ineligible because of their immigration status have been able to apply on behalf of other household members, such as U.S.-born children. And it’s these very families that the Trump administration is targeting with its most recent October 15 public charge rule that expands the list of public programs that the Department of Homeland Security may use to determine whether an immigrant can be denied entry to the US or have their legal permanent status adjusted. While courts have since blocked the October 15 public charge rule, the impact of the announcement and the fear that surrounds it has already caused significant harm. “Not all immigrants are impacted,” says Alba Velasquez of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. “The issue is that [the announcement] served as more of a scare tactic and resulted in immigrants becoming fearful to even use their earned benefits.”

With one in four children in the U.S. having at least one immigrant parent, the effect on those accessing farmers markets benefits as well as the agricultural community who grows and produces the food. “What we want to communicate to families is that nothing has changed so far, so please don’t drop off your benefits. It’s important for your family to have food,” says Valazquez Dueñas. “But families have real and legitimate fears around this, and that’s what the Trump administration wants, for people to feel powerless.”

In a move to empower and protect her community members, Rojas has started prominently posting signs in Spanish at the Central Avenue market stating “Know Your Rights: What to do if you are stopped by ICE.” Valazquez Dueñas says, “We can’t necessarily change things overnight or protect every single person, but posting the signs is a gesture. We want to let people know that we are going to do our best to create a safe environment and make sure the market is for everyone regardless of class status and documentation status.”

Even with community outreach, immigrant families are left feeling frightened and apprehensive of law enforcement. At the Hollywood Farmers Market, one farmer, who asked not to be identified, said that recently there was a small fire at a neighbor’s farm in Kern County, which employees put out themselves to avoid calling the local fire department. He noted that the community is reluctant to reach out to law enforcement even in case of emergency for fear their immigration status would be questioned.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the Echo Park Farmers Market is quieter than usual. Where lines usually form to buy eggs from La Bahn Ranch, a lone customer chats with the woman behind the table. Nearby Manny Galvez stacks Valencia oranges underneath a banner that boasts “Freshly picked & locally grown.” Galvez, who founded Galvez Family Farm in Ventura County with his son, Miguel, in February 2019, says he worries about the impact on both the community and farmers as the Trump administration continues to propose cuts to food benefits. “It’s harder to attract people to come out,” he says. “Just to be out in general is a concern.”

Heather John Fogarty is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work appears in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire, the Hollywood Reporter, and has been featured on NPR. She currently teaches journalism at USC Annenberg.