A Look at the Human Hands Behind Our Food

hands fruit

I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion about farmworker justice entitled, “The Fruits of Their Labor.”

Update 9/24/09: The panel was organized by CUESA, The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture and they’ve posted a link to the audio files of the panel, so you can listen to the discussion yourself.

We’ve read about modern slavery in the tomato fields in Immokalee, Florida. You might ask why the situation in Florida would be any different than, for instance, the large farms in California’s Central Valley.

Turns out, what happens in Florida isn’t unique. Sexual harassment and abuse, non-payment, being forced to drink water from irrigation ditches, having no access to the fresh food harvested for others’ consumption, constant pesticide exposure, heat-related deaths, 12 to 14 hour work days and child labor are all routine in our agricultural system.

In addition, workers toil for an average yearly wage of $7,000-$10,000 per individual or $13,000 per family, without health insurance, sick pay or overtime. The people affected are powerless because they are often undocumented immigrants (often of indigenous heritage) from some of the poorest states in Mexico and Central America. The fact that people are willing to come here to work under such horrible conditions should give you a pretty good idea of how bad things are for poor people in their home countries.

The four panelists who spoke are all well-versed in different aspects of the food system as it relates to agricultural workers. They were: Sandy Brown, co-owner of Swanton Berry Farm; the first organic farm to contract with the UFW (United Farm Workers); Alida Cantor, of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a nonprofit research organization focused on farm labor conditions, rural health and sustainable food systems; Alegria De La Cruz, Staff Attorney for the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment, an environmental justice litigation organization; and Maisie Greenawalt, Vice President of Bon Appétit Management Company, which recently signed a ground-breaking agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Here are a few more statistics laid out by the panel:
“¢    Farmworkers today are generally young men who have left their families seeking work
“¢    50% have never seen a dentist
“¢    One-third have never seen a doctor
“¢    Agricultural workers toil under some of the most dangerous conditions of employment with 39.5 fatalities for every 100,000 employees in 2008.
“¢    Child labor in agriculture is legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act regarding child labor sets the minimum age of agricultural workers at 12 and 16 for everyone else.
“¢    California’s Central Valley has the 2nd worst air quality in the nation and 1 in 4 children there have asthma.

It kind of takes the pleasure out of eating, doesn’t it?

And unfortunately, if you think buying organic, locally-raised food from the farmers’ market means that the workers who harvested your food were treated fairly, it’s not necessarily a given.

The whole idea of social justice has only recently begun to be talked about in sustainable food circles. It’s true that some owner-operated organic farms do treat their workers well, but nothing requires them to do so. After all, profits are low; the farmers themselves have a hard time making a living and they have to compete in the marketplace.

So: You don’t want bad juju in your food caused by the horrible conditions under which the people who harvested it work. What can you do about it?

One of the things that was suggested in the panel was to go ahead and ask the farmers you buy your food from about worker treatment. Start by saying something like, “Who works for you, and how many people do you employ?” “How do you keep a stable workforce?” or anything non-confrontational to start the conversation. It may seem hard to ask about such personal things, but you have a right to know – just like you have a right to know if your food was sprayed with pesticides. One of the panelists brought up the fact that 10 years ago it seemed awkward to ask if the produce was organic.

This approach is only part of the picture, however.

As Americans (especially eco-minded ones), we’re inclined to think we can shop ourselves out of any problem. Voting with your fork won’t do the trick here, though it might make you feel better and nudge a few farmers toward treating their workers better.

The fact is, farmers – especially small, organic ones – don’t have it so easy in this system, either. How can they actually provide others with a living wage when they barely make on themselves? How can they provide their workers with health insurance when they can’t afford it for their families? These questions point to systemic changes that are needed in the areas of agriculture subsidies, health care, trade policies that cause people to seek work in the U.S. in the first place, and finally, immigration reform.

On a hopeful note, all the panelists had thoughts on things farmers could do to treat workers better that cost little to no money. The panelists have all asked farmworkers about what kinds of things would make their lives better. The answers won’t surprise you because they are really the same things we all need in our daily interactions with our supervisors and fellow workers.

“¢    Being treated like a whole person with hopes, dreams, plans for the future
“¢    Clear, respectful communication
“¢    A clear grievance policy
“¢    Flexible schedules
“¢    Worker safety measures
“¢    Shared decision-making
“¢    Occasional team-building activities like potlucks

None of these things cost much money and farmers who implement them say that they have a stable, productive workforce year after year.

Good food should be clean, and healthy for the people eating it and the planet. We’re working hard on that. Now we need to start including social justice in our conception of what sustainable food is. That means starting the conversation with each other, the people from whom we buy our food and our elected officials who set food policy.

I’ll end with a photo gallery of farmworker’s lives from The Migrant Project.

Image: ajawin

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.