Unsung Santa Cruz: She helps take care of the farmworkers who help put food on our tables
Jackie Vasquez has become an active advocate for taking care of farmworkers. Her work at GoodFarms involved everything from providing food and school supplies to families in need to bringing health services and vaccination clinics right to the fields.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Watsonville resident Joanne Sanchez and other volunteers with Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan wanted to show local farmworkers that their perseverance on the front lines of our foodways was recognized by the community.
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They made a plan to visit farms in Watsonville with a caravan of colorfully decorated cars, honking their horns, waving signs and enthusiastically showing support.
The volunteers also wanted to share masks, information about how COVID spreads, different financial resources and benefits that farmworkers might be able to take advantage of, and education supplies for their children.
But there was a problem. Very few of the farms would allow her and the other volunteers to come. “The community leaders weren’t trusting. Some of them thought we were coming to spy,” says Sanchez. “We’d tell them, ‘We have goods! We have masks! We have resources!’ They’d say, ‘No, go away.’”
One farm manager welcomed them. Jackie Vasquez, the operations director at GoodFarms, a strawberry grower outside of Moss Landing, invited them to come cheer on some of the hundreds of workers she managed. “She didn’t question why they were there. She knew we were there to help,” says Sanchez. “It was all about her workers — ’What are you bringing to my workers that could benefit them?’”
The caravan visited three of Vasquez’s crews and was able to bring them donations of food, resource materials for them and their families, and books for their children to help keep them entertained while they stayed home from school.
During their May 2020 visit, which coincided with Cinco de Mayo, they even brought a mariachi band to help lift the workers’ spirits. Sanchez noted that at every visit, Vasquez was very thoughtful about keeping her workers safe, ensuring that everyone stayed 6 feet apart, was masked and used hand sanitizer.
“We’ve had other good experiences, but she was a standout,” says Sanchez.
This wasn’t the first time Vasquez had brought resources to her workers. In fact, during her seven years as operations manager, Vasquez has established almost a dozen different programs at GoodFarms to help support her workers, an accomplishment that is exceptional in the industry.
Falling into the world of ag
Vasquez, 39, attended the University of Chicago and studied marketing, but had to return to Watsonville during her third year because of a family emergency. Back in California, she used her education in marketing to land a job as a marketing executive at Univision, the leading Spanish-speaking media company in the United States.
After speaking at a seminar on marketing needs for Hispanic businesses, Vasquez was offered the job as the executive assistant to the vice president of operations for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, an agriculture company based in Watsonville. At the time, she had no interest in agriculture, but the job paid well and it was closer to home, so she accepted.
But the passion for agriculture she saw from her boss and his colleagues, all of whom had either grown up in agriculture or attended school to work in the industry, inspired her. They took Vasquez under their wing and taught her skills that went beyond her position as an assistant and helped her develop as an agricultural leader.
They also instilled a sense of social responsibility in Vasquez. “There were a lot of conversations about social responsibility there before even the term ‘social responsibility’ was coined,” says Vasquez. “We have thousands of farmworkers here, and we understand the gaps that they have, in wages and opportunities in life. And so we always try to find little ways to help.”
We have thousands of farmworkers here, and we understand the gaps that they have, in wages and opportunities in life. And so, we always try to find little ways to help.
After 10 years of working at Andrew & Williamson, she rose to the position of director of partner growing operations. When she left to become the operations manager at GoodFarms, she was happy because it was a wonderful opportunity, but sad to leave the team she had grown to love so much.
One idea she brought to GoodFarms from Andrew & Williamson was the resource fair. Vasquez knew there were organizations out there that could help her workers, if they could only connect.
So she invited those organizations to come to the farm, which allowed the workers to gain information and even apply for services without the costly expense of having to take a day off of work. Vasquez also points out that for a farmworker, applying for benefits can be intimidating, even scary.
“A lot of times, foreign workers are scared of just applying because they feel like, now my name is on a list. Or they might ask if they have papers or not, or ask if they’re legal,” explains Vasquez.
It was a small concept that felt like it could have a big impact. As she observed her workers connecting with different nonprofit organizations, Vasquez noted that each connection felt like a seed being planted as they learned that they could get help with rent, food donations and school supplies.
It struck a personal chord for Vasquez, the daughter of immigrant parents who were both non-English speakers. Although they were business owners and had a grocery store in Watsonville, there were times when they struggled. She wondered, if her parents had this need, would they know whom to ask, feel like they can ask for it, and be comfortable with asking?
“Every decision I made after that was like, how would my parents ask for this help?” she said.
There were needs to be met
Vasquez admits that she didn’t have a big plan to bring aid to her workers, but when she saw a need she tried to address it. Once, a worker mentioned that they didn’t know where to buy a backpack for their child at the beginning of the school year, so Vasquez reached out to an organization that provides backpacks for at-risk youth.
Now, every year, every one of her farmworkers’ children, from kindergarten to 12th grade, is given a backpack full of school supplies.
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When several teachers brought to her attention that some of the workers’ children were showing up at school in the winter without jackets, she raised money through a GoFundMe, her personal Facebook page, and through donations from other businesses in the industry to purchase new jackets for every child of each member of her team. It became an annual program.
Vasquez says she has acted as a “broker” for countless organizations, connecting them to her farmworkers to provide free rides to appointments, food donations and legal aid. She has also brought medical resources, like flu shots, to the farm so the farmworkers wouldn’t have to use their valuable Sundays — the only day they have off of work — to visit a clinic.
These actions have undoubtedly had a huge impact on the lives of the farmworkers under her care, but Vasquez says these actions made sense from a business perspective as well: “Yes, this is social responsibility. And yes, this is amazing. But if we only want to look at the business aspect of it, let’s just say because businesses might be thinking it’s too expensive — healthy workers are present workers.”
One of the most enduring resources Vasquez established during her tenure at GoodFarms was El Ropero, or The Closet. It started when one of her workers asked if there was a place they could donate the almost-new jacket their child had outgrown. Others said they had items they could pass on as well. An idea sparked in Vasquez’s mind when she noticed an old, unused shipping container on the property.
She asked a mechanic to install some shelves, and it transformed into a donation center. Workers can now take home a coat, a blanket, household goods, car seats, even a prom dress, no questions asked. The idea spread to other districts in the company, some of which established their own roperos.
Bringing services to the fields
During the pandemic, the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan wasn’t the only resource Vasquez brought to her workers. She connected with the Pajaro Valley Unified School District to bring STEM projects and crafts for their kids studying from home.
A medical worker from Natividad Medical Center in Salinas came and did a full presentation on COVID safety, hygiene and how to protect yourself and others in multifamily living arrangements.
When the vaccine became available, her workers were some of the first to get vaccinated: “We made sure to give our workers the time and transportation if needed to ensure that if they chose to get vaccinated, that they’d have free access to vaccinations at a time that worked for their work schedule.”
I’m on the path of restarting everything again. I’m really excited.
Vasquez recently left GoodFarms to become vice president of operations at Sambrailo Packaging in Watsonville, a company she says also has “a heart of service.” “I’m on the path of restarting everything again,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
Vasquez has passed the torch for continuing the programs she established to Juan Montanez, who manages worker compensation and safety at GoodFarms and has worked closely with Vasquez since 2015.
Montanez says they will definitely try to continue all of the programs Vasquez established. “It takes a lot of work, but people are used to them now,” he says. “People know that if they need clothes, we have clothes. If they need food, we can get them food.”
He says that everyone who is there and has time helps out.
“We grow strawberries; we’re not a nonprofit organization. But they really appreciate it,” Montanez says. “They have a really tough job and if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have any fruits and vegetables in our houses. They appreciate it and they remember us for it.”