Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

With strong prodding from about 20 social justice advocates — about half of whom identifying as children of farmworkers — the Santa Barbara County supervisors on Tuesday voted to apply for a state grant to create a $1 million farmworker resource center, described as a mobile one-stop shop for farmworkers needing assistance with health care, labor rights, immigration, and education. The money — about $833,000 — is on the table courtesy of a bill sponsored by State Assemblymember Steve Bennett, who was so impressed with a Ventura County protype that in its first year served 1,400 farmworkers. 

All five supervisors expressed support for the idea, but North County supervisors Steve Lavagnino and Bob Nelson both expressed serious qualms about the details. It was only one-time funding, Lavagnino worried, meaning the county would be on the hook financially to keep the center alive after year one. With the state looking at a $25 billion deficit, he predicted, the supervisors could find themselves hard-pressed to find the money. 

Nelson was blunter. He didn’t want the money going to groups like CAUSE and MICOP, whose interests, he said, were adversarial to those of growers. Likewise, he didn’t want the Department of Public Health administering the program; there were trust issues, he said, between growers and that department based on Public Health’s outreach efforts to farmworkers during the COVID crisis. 

Growers felt Public Health did not reach out enough to them during the pandemic, favoring activist organizations instead. Former Public Health director Van Do-Reynoso — now an equity specialist working for CenCal — testified via Zoom in support of the grant. 

Many of the speakers speaking in support of the program identified themselves as representatives of CAUSE and MICOP. Many detailed how, as children, they acted as translators for their farmworker parents; they described the challenges of explaining — as young kids — to their parents their legal rights as workers.  

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A speaker representing Assemblymember Bennett said such resources were necessary for people working in California’s $50 billion agriculture industry. Ultimately, the supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of applying for the grant. Lavagnino cast the sole dissenting vote. 

“I think it’s a great idea,” Lavagnino said. “Shame on me for not making this happen sooner, but I don’t think we should partner with the state.” 

The county, he said, should take its time, invite all the stakeholders, and craft something sustainable. 

Nelson voted in favor once he was assured all the money would be controlled by the county and would not be given to community-based organizations targeting the growers. 

“I don’t think it’s that complicated,” said Supervisor Joan Hartmann, speaking in favor of the proposal. The county, she noted, had only 21 days in which to draft a grant proposal for which there was intense competition. Only three of 22 counties applying for the funds would be awarded funding. Should the county win, the funding could cover the considerable costs of buying a van, which would function as an office on wheels. Even if that funding was good for just one year, she argued, that van would allow the county to keep the program going into the future for considerably less than the $1 million the state would require for the first 14 months. 

To qualify for the grant, the county would have to provide a matching contribution of $208,000. County Supervisor Gregg Hart, speaking in support of the grant, stated, “The best time to do something hard is today.” 

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