Organizing for Healthcare Reform and Food Systems Change with Fishing Partnership Support Services

An interview with Fishing Partnership Support Services Founder J.J. Bartlett

What do you want the larger agricultural community to know about the healthcare needs of farmworkers, farmers, and/or foodchain workers?

Fishing Partnership Support Services (FP) is a nonprofit company in Massachusetts that has been improving the health, safety, and economic security of fishing families for over 20 years. Food producers, including fishermen, deserve our support. Fishermen are critical to our local economy.  For example, seven-thousand Massachusetts fishermen form the foundation of a multi-billion-dollar seafood industry that supports over 90,000 workers. Furthermore, the future looks bright for the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the fishing industry will grow by 11% by 2026 - compared to 7% for all occupations.

Sadly, fishermen and other food producers not only deserve our support, they need our support. Commercial fishing has consistently ranked between the first or second deadliest professions within the United States. This is a dangerous job for many reasons, including: long working days that average 14.6 hours per day, hazardous at-sea conditions, and the physical and strenuous nature of the profession, which places them at a high-risk for work-related injuries. Fishermen are isolated, independent workers. Most are self-employed, and they are typically not supported by a union or a cooperative. Along with farmers and food service workers, fishermen are among the U.S. workers who are the mostly likely to be uninsured, the lowest paid, sickest, most likely to die on the job, most likely to die by suicide, and most likely to die of an opioid overdose.

What are your biggest fears in this moment? What opportunities do you see?

The United States has an unaddressed health care crisis among communities of workers who share the following high-risk characteristics: high rates of pain and injury on the job, lower availability of paid sick leave, and lower job security.  These occupations include fishermen, agriculture workers, and food service workers. As mentioned above, these workers are among the most likely to be sick and uninsured, yet as independent workers and small business owners, they are less likely to have the support of a company funded human resources department to promote their occupational safety and health. If we, as a society, are unable to create a safe, healthy, and economically secure 21st Century agriculture workforce, globalization will continue to drive a consolidated, international commodity food market.  This commodity market will continue to prioritize profits by driving ever lower prices and higher volume through unsustainable means. These economic pressures will make it difficult to maintain a healthy, safe workforce and therefore impossible to attract and maintain young agriculture workers for the next generation. We are already seeing the highest rates of bankruptcies in a decade among Midwest farmers. As small businesses fail, and workers leave the agriculture industry, U.S. infrastructure will fall into disrepair and will not be replaced.  We will become even more dependent on foreign sources for our food, giving up our ability to control the quality and sustainable production of our food, thus reducing food security for our nation.  

The national election in 2020 may provide an opportunity for workers’ rights advocates to garner attention to these causes and set the stage for future change. Voters continue to demand reforms to the health care system to achieve high quality, affordable health care for all citizens. In addition, at least three presidential candidates have announced proposals to reform agriculture policy to improve the lives of workers.

Finally, the slow food movement continues to gather steam, providing education to consumers on the need to promote food that is produced in environmentally friendly ways while compensating food producers fairly for their work. This is in addition to various traceability programs that aim to bring consumers closer to the people who produce their food, while increasing their access to locally and sustainably caught fish or produce.

In your opinion, what are the most effective ways we can support mental and physical health in the food system? Is there a specific policy or action that your organization is driving or would endorse?

First, we must educate consumers on the unaddressed health care crisis faced by communities of workers in high risk occupations, including food producers. It is essential that all agriculture workers have access to high quality, affordable health care coverage and workers’ advocates should endorse any health care policy that furthers this cause. In addition, Fishing Partnership created a community-based, wholistic public health model that improves the health, safety, and economic security of Massachusetts fishing families.  FP’s “Navigator” model shows promise for other communities of workers.

Established in 1997, FP provides health-related education, outreach and health insurance enrollment to over 20,000 fishing families throughout New England. FP creates and runs programs to address the most crucial health-related concerns of commercial fishermen and their families: safety and survival training, opioid-related outreach and educational trainings, preventive healthcare interventions, access to affordable health insurance and workshops to address social determinants of health through improvements to economic security.

A key component of FP’s model is that our programs are offered through offices located in Massachusetts port towns (Gloucester, Plymouth, New Bedford, and Chatham), staffed by members of the fishing industry called Navigators. Most Navigators are fishermen’s wives, partners, or fishermen themselves; they know what fishing families need, and they are highly trained as community health workers, so they are experts in delivering care to meet those needs. FP continues to develop programming to address the changing demands of this population. As one example, in the past three years, FP introduced courses to address stress and behavioral health issues, including mindfulness training, opioid overdose prevention, and financial planning seminars. FP is proud to have won the 2016 Massachusetts Outstanding Community Health Worker Program of the Year Award (May 2016).

Our theory of change is that community based public health services provided through local offices, staffed by community members, will help keep fishing workers and their families healthy, safe, and vital. We aim to reduce health care costs through our multi-faceted approach, and we continue to innovate our services to meet the needs of our members. Most recently, in response to the rise of opioid-related overdoses in MA, we have developed new trainings and partnerships.  This Navigator model must be studied and national legislation, such as the Shoreside Commercial Fishing Support Grants, should be introduced to translate this success to other communities of high-risk workers.

How does healthcare policy affect/intersect with agriculture and food policy?

Commercial fisheries are part of a globalized food system with competition from industrial and international markets for locally caught fish.  While the harvesting of fish is often regulated by the federal government, it is within our control as MA citizens to promote, advocate for, and purchase seafood that is caught and harvested by local fishermen. As part of the MA Local Food Action Plan accepted by the MA Food Policy Council, one goal is to increase the production, sale and consumption of MA grown foods. Locally caught fish is fresher and more environmentally friendly, as we are consuming foods that are from shortened and localized supply chains. Developing a sustainable and local food system is critical to food security so that we can ensure access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate seafood. Finally, consumers will pay more for a fresh, local product, which will increase fishermen’s incomes and sustain local, family run businesses.

Small-scale fisheries play an important role in coastal livelihoods as they support local and family operated businesses and jobs. Fishing jobs are not only important to the economy, but they also hold cultural significance to many states and port towns as families keep fishing traditions alive over generations. However, fishing is a dangerous profession, as previously stated, that requires both health and food policies to keep our workplaces safe. FP is currently in the planning stages of creating an apprenticeship program for the fishing industry. In this way, we can provide the needed skills to the next generation of fishermen while helping to prevent occupational injuries that stem from a lack of experience. Additionally, FP’s Navigator model connects fishermen and their families to much needed resources within their community. This helps fishermen navigate the healthcare system and provides other important services to increase their health, safety, and economic security.  These educational and preventive interventions are critical to address the healthcare crisis that affects fishermen and other food chain workers so that we can create a safe, healthy, and economically secure 21st century workforce.

J.J. Bartlett is President of Fishing Partnership Support Services and brings over twenty-five years of healthcare industry experience to the job. In 1997, J.J. created, launched, and managed the Fishing Partnership Health Plan, which reduced the rate of uninsured fishing families in Massachusetts by 75 percent. After the Affordable Care Act made insurance available to independent workers, he re-launched the organization with a broader mission and renamed it Fishing Partnership Support Services (FP). FP acts as a human resources agency for fishing families, offering critical programs such as: health insurance enrollment assistance, direct health services and education, safety and survival training, financial planning, behavioral health services, and more. The Boston Business Journal named J.J. a “40 under 40” honoree in 2008, and in 2009 he was called upon by the White House Office of Health Reform to testify on rural health issues and hard-to-reach populations. In 2013, he received the Offshore Mariner’s Wives Association’s “Friend of the Fishing Industry” award. In 2016 FP was named the Massachusetts Community Health Worker Program of the Year. In 2017, J.J. received the Leadership Award from PAARI, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, for FP’s work to combat the opioid crisis. J.J. received his Bachelors’ degree from Harvard University and holds an MBA from Boston University with a concentration in health care management.