NCDHHS partners with Raleigh company to distribute 900,000 masks, cleaning supplies to farmworkers

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) announced a partnership to deliver 900,000 masks and infection control supplies to farmers and agricultural workers.

"Agriculture is vital to our economy and food supply and it is critical that we protect farmworkers and their families from this virus," Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement.

NCDHHS is partnering with N.C. Cooperative Extension, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the N.C. Department of Labor, and the N.C. Agromedicine Institute to expedite delivery.

"In the living conditions, you sometimes have four guys in one room. So trying to reduce the exposure that they have when they go out," said Roberto Rosales, the farmworker education coordinator for the N.C. Cooperative Extension.

Usually, his work centers around teaching workers about staying safe from pesticides and heat stroke, but he's now including lessons on COVID-19.

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"Cases have happened across the state so we want to make sure we lessen that by education and providing resources, in this case masks and cleaning supplies," said Rosales.

Social distancing can be difficult for farmers and growers, from shared transport to communal living to working near each other.

"Part of our mission (has) been to get masks out to farmworkers in those situations when they're not able to social distance," Rosales said.

Cintia Aguilar, a program manager for the N.C. Cooperative Extension, says the partnership with the Governor's Office will enable them to help more people.

"We can afford to give even 5 to 10 masks to a worker. But at the beginning, we were just thinking about one," Aguilar explained.

Private businesses have also stepped up to assist workers, including Raleigh-based fashion line Descalza.

"I thought about which communities do we always overlook and are always giving us more than what we deserve. And those are the farmworkers," said founder Lisbeth Arias, an NC State alum.

Arias, a friend of Rosales, reached out to him for help as part of a program in which the company donates a mask to a farmworker for each one purchased by a customer.

"They put themselves out there every single day. We all complain about the North Carolina heat, and they're out there. They're picking all the produce, all the vegetables, everything so that we can have a meal every single day. So the least we can do is provide something for them to make their job just a little easier," said Arias.

"We appreciated it really much when Lisbeth approached us and said 'I want to contribute. I want to give back to that community.' Because from her end, she saw there was a need, and then she connected with a source that could help her idea become a reality," said Aguilar.

About 17 percent of jobs in North Carolina are in the agricultural industry. In June 2019, The N.C. State Extension reported that agriculture was an $87 billion industry that supports nearly 700,000 jobs.

"For the most part, I think workers and even the growers understand the importance of trying to mitigate the threat of the virus in terms of doing the best they can. Obviously, from a growers standpoint, you want to keep your workers healthy, because there's already a lot of work to be done. So you can't really afford to lose a worker (for a prolonged period of time)," said Rosales, who added that farmworkers already operated under enhanced sanitary guidelines.

Rosales and Aguilar are now trying to spread the word that masks and cleaning supplies are available to those in need, and are encouraging those in need to reach out. To connect with your local Cooperative Extension, click here. To learn more about the N.C. Cooperative Extension program click here (English) or here (Spanish) .

If you're interested in purchasing a mask from Descalza, click here.
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