For 30 years, Evaristo Romero was a migrant farmworker.
But for the last 12 years, he’s gone to the orchards with a different task: to teach migrant workers, especially diabetics, about healthy eating.
Employed with One Community Health, his background gives him credibility with the people he works with in the Mid-Columbia region.
His goal is to provide understandable information on better lifestyle changes and provide them with better food at no cost.
“A lot of them are not eating healthy foods,” Romero said. Chips are a common problem, along with soda pop, fast food and Mexican pastries.
“It's hard to eat a healthy diabetic diet,” he added. Part of the problem is cultural.
Workers travel as a unit, and cook one meal for everyone, he explained. “You buy groceries as a group, you share the cost and take turns preparing meals. You all share the same meal. If you are a diabetic, you have no choice but to eat a non-diabetic meal.”
Romero shares nutrition information using a “red light, green light” methodology that highlights the worst foods (red light) and the best (green light.)
“It's about what foods to have a little of, what foods are best,” he said.
Speaking to groups of workers, he asks them to commit to a lifestyle change in front of their peers. Often, a group of 20 to 40 workers will commit to the change.
Walking through the main migrants camp at Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Romero noted that many workers return to the same camps each year.
“There are camps that traditionally have the same workers. There are families that are very loyal; they come to the same camp. In regards to diabetes, I see some improvement, a change in their knowledge,” he said.
“In this camp I met a migrant worker eight years ago. He is a diabetic patient. Every year, he comes to our clinic,” Romero noted as he walked beneath the shade trees among the small migrant housing units of the camp with a reporter.
A man approaches, shakes Romero's hand and engages him in a conversation in Spanish.
“This is the man!” Romero says as he introduces him. Saul Mora-Nunez is here from California to pick cherries, and approached Romero because he has left his glucometer at home.
“He approached me because he wanted help scheduling an appointment at the clinic,” Romero said.
With Romero serving as interpreter, Mora-Nunez said that over the years, the information and assistance provided to him has taught him how to control his diabetes. He is in The Dalles with his immediate family of three and an extended family of 15. He has been coming to Orchard View Farms each summer for 30 years.
Not far away, at Roca Ranch's migrant camp on Mill Creek south of The Dalles, a team of outreach workers have been speaking with a number of pickers gathered under a shade tent pitched among the rows of small cabins.
Those in attendance have been given bright red “tickets,” and as the class portion of the outreach winds to a close, numbers are being drawn from a cup.
There is a carnival atmosphere as numbers are drawn and healthy food — fresh fruits and vegetables, tortilla flaps and dried beans of various types —are distributed to ticket holders.
“A mango!” exclaims Araceli Hernandez as she exchanges her ticket for the plump ripe fruit.
As the baskets of food are emptied, the final business of the outreach begins: Lines form as nurses and health care workers begin checking blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
“We are here to help and support the people, to prevent diabetes, and to encourage a healthy lifestyle,” said Alicia Sandoval as she checked blood sugar levels.
Sandoval has been part of the outreach for 10 years, and works out of the OCH’s Hood River clinic. In the past, outreach programs ran for two weeks. This year, camps will be visited over four days.
Romero estimates that ,of the 5,000 workers in the region for cherry harvest, outreach workers talk to around 10 percent of them, or about 500, each year.
Christina Meza, also a community health worker, said the actual outreach work had a significant impact regardless of the numbers.
“I think the gain is that this helps them feel comfortable and safe in coming to the clinic in The Dalles,” she said.
During the harvest season, walk-in hours are maintained at the Hood River and The Dalles clinics with an eye to helping migrant farmworkers, who would otherwise struggle to make appointments during the picking season.
OCH has its roots in “La Clinica del Carino,” which opened a small clinic in Hood River to serve migrant farm workers in 1985, with federal funding. Early furnishings were purchased second-hand from Rajhneeshpuram, which had dissolved and was selling off topnotch medical clinic equipment.
In 1986, La Clinica was recognized as a “federally qualified community and migrant” health center, with over half of those served being non-Latino, non-farmworkers. Federal funding was increased.
La Clinica continued to grow, and in 2004 a federal grant was obtained to establish a second health center in The Dalles. That clinic is located at the corner of 10th and Webber streets.
Now named One Community Health, the group provides medical and dental care for residents of four counties: Wasco and Hood River counties in Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington.