‘People Are Waiting for Our Message’

Behind the tech that is connecting farmworkers with aid.

May 2022

Reading time min

Photo of Flores, Torres and Solorzano standing near farmland

Flores, Torres and Solorzano Photo: Jesus Torres, ’98

On April 22, 2020, a line of cars snaked along the dry, dusty roads of Delano, Calif. Despite harvesting the fruits and nuts that would fill grocery store shelves during the early days of the pandemic, farmworkers were struggling to feed their families. In response, the UFW Foundation—a nonprofit arm of the United Farm Workers of America, the union founded by Cesar Chavez—had helped organize a one-day meal giveaway and announced the event on dedicated radio stations for farmworkers.

“We started off like, ‘Let’s do a thousand meals,’” says UFW Foundation executive director Diana Tellefson-Torres, ’98. “We needed 4,000.” There were so many people still in line when the food ran out that Tellefson-Torres’s staff couldn't realistically tell them all that they should go home, let alone explain when to come back.

It was the type of problem Tellefson-Torres, ’98, had discussed with her husband, Jesus Torres, ’98, countless times. Torres, himself the son of a sharecropper and a cotton picker, had watched his wife ramp up assistance for agricultural workers for 17 years, but he had also watched the ongoing struggle—the population his wife had centered her career around was spread out in far-flung rural towns, sometimes hours away from a UFW Foundation office. Geography, low literacy rates and limited awareness of their rights meant workers often missed out on the most basic support, even when it was available. Fortunately, by April 2020, when his wife was staring out nervously at that interminable line of cars, Torres had already realized he could use his tech background to solve at least part of the problem, and it was all thanks to a shift that had happened just a few years earlier: Farmworkers had smartphones.

A revolution that fits in a pocket

In 2014, Tellefson-Torres held a UFW Foundation meeting in Salinas with more than 100 farmworkers in attendance and asked for a show of hands: How many of them had smartphones? Only three in the crowd. But in the intervening years, decreasing cell service prices and incremental increases in wages reached a tipping point, and smartphone ownership among low-wage agricultural workers ballooned. Despite the newfound affordability, some workers were initially nervous about learning to use the technology, says Cristina Romero, who has picked fruit in the Central Valley for 15 years. “One Christmas, I gifted my husband a smartphone, and a month later he said no, it wasn’t for him,” she says in Spanish, laughing. “He was having a hard time.” But her husband ultimately embraced his gift, and over the last few years, Romero has seen most of her fellow workers follow suit.

Around the same time, Torres was thinking about a change of his own. He’d worked in tech and business for the better part of two decades, and his wife had finally convinced him to bring his skills to the agricultural social justice world. He started consulting with UFW Foundation to figure out where the greatest need was, but he quickly discovered that the need was everywhere. The only tech companies he saw focusing on agriculture were working to increase productivity for farm owners—developing land-surveying drones, self-driving tractors and solar-powered weed-killing machines. Farmworkers, Torres says, had been overlooked. “We’re sitting here in Silicon Valley. You have the breadbasket of [California] right next to it, but there’s no connection there.”

‘You’ve got millions of farmworkers across the U.S. with a computer in their pocket. How are we not taking advantage of that?’

In 2016, he developed an app for UFW to help farmworkers report workplace abuse, but before he’d finished it, he realized the untapped potential he’d stumbled upon. “You’ve got millions of farmworkers across the U.S. with a computer in their pocket,” Torres says. “How are we not taking advantage of that?” Instead of launching the app, he reached out to two friends from Stanford, Jorge Flores, ’00, and Rene Solorzano, ’98, and asked them to join him. In 2018, they co-founded Entidad, a public benefit corporation that aims to use technology to improve quality of life in underserved communities. All three founders had family connections to agriculture, and they set about helping the UFW Foundation better connect with workers.

From underserved to understood

Entidad’s focus on farmworkers wasn’t just unique from a technology standpoint. Most information about farmworkers comes from data sets with significant shortcomings. Even the exact number of workers in the U.S. is difficult to unravel. The UFW Foundation estimates about 2.4 million farmworkers in the country, with about a third of them in California, but numbers from the USDA, Department of Labor and academic reports vary from 772,000 to more than 2.5 million. Most of this data is extrapolated from surveys of farm owners who provide payroll or hiring information, rather than of workers themselves. Survey results are complicated by the fact that many workers—including 27% of those in California—have more than one farmworking job.

The one federal survey that does solicit responses directly from workers, the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), is limited in scope. NAWS has a reputation of accuracy and is described in NAWS presentations as the most reliable source of demographic information on U.S. crop workers, but it surveyed just 2,586 workers in its most recent report, and it does not include livestock workers or those brought to the U.S. on the controversial H2-A visa. Despite the limited sample size, NAWS guides policy, programs and decision-making within federal agencies, including the EPA, Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and the Congressional Budget Office.

The dearth of data is compounded by decades of discrimination, says Tellefson-Torres. “Farmworkers have been excluded from federal labor laws—they don’t have the right to overtime; they don’t have the right to unionize; and there are many other labor protections that they don’t have access to.” About half of all farmworkers are estimated to be undocumented, further exacerbating the challenge of tracking their demographics and other details like work conditions and housing, the latter of which is increasingly provided by employers. Despite improvements to laws governing agricultural worker rights, the CDC reported in 2008 that farmworkers were nearly 20 times more likely to die of heat exhaustion than other civilian workers, a statistic that appeared to be increasing. Even today, workers often contact UFW Foundation to report workers’ rights issues, including 16-hour workdays.

With UFW’s rich history of advocacy and deep relationships with leaders of the farmworker movement, the UFW Foundation is one of the few organizations trusted by farmworkers. Entidad made it easier to sign up for UFW Foundation’s text messaging system, which now reaches 41,000 farmworkers and is used to spread the word about assistance and more. In December 2020, Tellefson-Torres used the system to send out a text survey with questions about health and employment status. “We had close to 15,000 farmworkers participate,” she says. “[They] told us that three-quarters of them do not have any health insurance, and that 13 percent have never gone to the doctor. When you’re in the midst of a pandemic and talking about who should be prioritized . . . that data is critical to advancing policies that are more equitable.”

The app integrates blockchain-based Web3 technologies, which enable farmworkers to securely upload sensitive documents like immigration forms and paperwork for aid and services right on their phones.

When UFW Foundation disbursed $23 million in disaster relief aid during the pandemic, Entidad’s software helped sign people up by securely collecting and verifying their personal information to meet the eligibility requirements, increasingly important as the amount of available aid increases. Last year, UFW Foundation helped push the funding for a historic $665 million grant from the USDA through Congress—the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program, created to help farmworkers and meatpackers with pandemic-related health and safety costs. To be eligible when funds are disbursed later this year, workers will likely need to prove their identity and employment status. And the need for digital identities will only become more common, says Tellefson-Torres. “We pass immigration reform? Someone has to demonstrate that they’re a farmworker [to change their immigration status].”

The first farmworker app

Torres and Tellefson-Torres are looking forward to the debut later this year of Entidad’s most ambitious project yet: a first-of-its-kind, one-stop UFW Foundation mobile app created specifically for farmworkers. The app integrates blockchain-based Web3 technologies, which enable farmworkers to securely upload sensitive documents like immigration forms and paperwork for aid and services right on their phones. UFW Foundation is the largest federally accredited immigration legal service provider in the state of California, but even so, its offices are not geographically accessible to all workers. “People sometimes drive for hours to get an immigration legal services consultation,” says Tellefson-Torres. Once the app goes live, they’ll be able to complete immigration processes right on their phones.

When Romero gave her husband a smartphone for Christmas, she didn’t realize she was part of a burgeoning digital revolution. During the day, she picks citrus, blueberries and cherries in Tulare County, about 40 minutes away from UFW Foundation’s Delano office. Blueberries are her favorite, she says, because they are a slow, delicate fruit to harvest, unlike the citrus fruits, which require sheer speed. Supervisors are always brought to see her table because her baskets are the most beautiful—full of plump, unbroken berries that even the most sophisticated fruit-picking robots would turn to mush. The work is taxing, and the skin on her knees has turned black from the hours of kneeling next to blueberry plants, but in her free time, she has begun to volunteer at UFW Foundation, helping her fellow workers weather the frightening uncertainties of the pandemic. She has learned to use Entidad’s phone-based platforms and will help workers understand the app when it launches, but she’s already seen the impact of the technology. At a recent meal giveaway, she watched the minutes tick by without a single visitor. No one had come for the food. Then she looked at her phone and realized the UFW Foundation text announcement hadn’t gone out as planned. UFW Foundation’s digital team was notified, and within minutes of sending their mass text, farmworkers began showing up. “People are waiting for our message,” Romero says in Spanish, “to know where the help is.”

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.