APOPKA — The former farmworkers of Apopka lost something they never had recently – the possibility of adequate, community-wide health care.
But they still have their quilts, and are using them to promote their cause.
At one point, the new state budget had a $500,000 item devoted to the special health needs of this predominantly African-American community, courtesy of state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. Butr that money got cut out of the budget on May 26, the day Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law during a ceremony in The Villages.
But the community still has its quilts.

The blue quilt is designed by the Farmworkers Association to highlight the problem of a lack of health care for its members. (Photo by Linda Charlton).

“We will put the money back in next year,” Siplin pledged. “We have support. We have people working on the governor. If he’s going to be compassionate, he needs to be compassionate about people who need medical care. I’m trying to see what we can do right now, to see what can be done. We are working with a variety of health agencies to see what they can do.”
In the meantime, the community of farmworkers has two quilts — one red, one blue — that now have 32 squares each, representing a farm worker who has passed on. Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida figures it would not be hard to do more quilts, since there are plenty of former farmworkers in the community who have died.
Economos is the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Coordinator for her association. She says they’ve been trying for 12 years to get a full-blown study of the health problems of the former farmworkers — the sort of study that gets peer-reviewed, is published in journals, and then provides proper medical care for them.
The idea for the quilts came not long after their fourth grant proposal was turned down, and Economos heard one member of the community remark that she’d gone to 10 funerals that week.
“At least, if nothing else, honor them, recognize them … keep their memories alive,” she said.
The quilts were designed with input from the survivors, and offer broad hints at just how the workers and pesticide came in contact: leafy greens, bare hands, lots of fishing going on, a bag of DDT, scraps of clothing representing the pesticide imbued clothing of some workers, workers working in mud, crop dusters.
Former farmworker Betty Woods does remember crop dusters spraying overhead while workers were in the fields, and Economos points out that federal regulations designed to protect farm workers from exposure were not enacted until the 1990s. The former farmworker community of Apopka dates from the days when Lake Apopka was the winter vegetable capital of the country. During World War II, when self-sufficiency was heavily emphasized, the federal government spearheaded the effort to dike off 20,000 acres on the north part of the lake, to be used for food production.
The experiment proved to be wildly successful. Corn farmers, in particular, were able to harvest as many as three crops per year. In the summer months, when the fields were fallow, the fields were flooded in order to control weeds and pests. Then water would be pumped back into the lake.
Once a bass fisherman’s paradise, the lake eventually would come to be known as the sickest, most polluted large body of water in all of Florida. The state bought out of the muck farms in the 1990s in an effort to restore the lake, and all muck farms ceased operation in 1998 except for one holdout, which ceased the following year.
In the fall of 1998, as a sort of celebration of the restoration efforts of this lake, St. Johns River Water Management District flooded the former muck farms. Once the seasonal birds stared arriving, attracted to the fertile, shallow waters, they began dying – more than 1,000 federally protected migratory, fish-eating birds in all.
That’s when the Farmworker Association started pointing out there was a real problem here. There were an estimated 2,500 people in the farm worker community when the farms closed down, and Economos estimates that figure is now down to 2,000.
Former farmworker Betty Woods knows that exposure to pesticide on the farms is a problem, but says she misses the work anyway. (Photo by Linda Charlton).

In 2005, there was a small-scale environmental health survey done of the community of former farm workers in Apopka. There were a total of 148 respondents in the study, which was funded by the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The study did show that the respondents were experiencing chronic health problems at rates significantly higher rates than the general public. The statistic that stands out from all the others is that 11 percent of the repondents had been diagnosed with lupus, even though less than 1 percent of the respondents were taking medication for that disease.
As one former farmworker who does not want to identified said, “We didn’t think it was pesticides, but we noticed that the birds and snakes and frogs and things like that (would be dead), but we didn’t think it was pesticides. Then all the birds started dying and … wait a minute, how about us?”
The Farmworker Association can be contacted through its Web site at http://www.floridafarmworkers.org.

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