Tag Archives: labor

Working the Food Chain

9 May

Today’s post is inspired by my mounting excitement over the final stages of funding and post-production on a new food documentary that I can’t wait to see: Sanjay Rawal’s FOOD CHAIN, which explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers.

Check out the trailer.

Yes, actual — not sort-of – slavery.

You can find more information on supporting the documentary, which has met its initial Kickstarter goal,  but has a secondary goal to fully fund the film’s graphics, here.

I’ve summarized some of the labor rights issues in the agricultural industry here before, but thought it was worth revisiting, to put faces, and some specific numbers, to the abstraction that is so often associated with the hands who pick our food — even the food we buy at Whole Foods, or Trader Joes.

According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, the typical farmworker in the U.S. is a young man who has left his family to work in the field.  He ususally spends between 12 and 14 hours a day in the field, six days a week, and made between $7,000-10,000 a year for an individual, or up to $13,000 a year for a family. The farmworker has no health insurance. No sick days, no vacation days, and certainly no union. More than 50% have never been to a dentist—about 1/3 have never seen a doctor. Typically, farms provide housing for their workers during the growing and harvesting season, to maximize the picking hours in a day. Workers can expect to pay about $50 a week to live in run-down shacks or trailers, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.

All this, all this our farm workers get in exchange for picking the food we need, for working the third most dangerous job in the country. The odds of dying on the farm are 39 out of 100,000. Farmworkers suffer the highest rate of toxic chemical injuries and skin disorders of any workers in the country, and are more than 25% more likely than the average American to develop asthma, birth defects, tuberculosis and cancer. Children of migrant farm workers have higher rates of pesticide exposure, dental disease and malnutrition.

Because, oh yes, the agricultural industry is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s child labor regulations. In every other industry, the minimum age to work legally in this country is 16. On the farm, it’s 12.

So why would anyone want to do farm work—if it’s so back-breaking, hot, exhausting, dangerous and underpaid, why would you sign up for it? Because you don’t have any other option, of course. It’s probably not a surprise that the vast majority of California’s farmworkers—and, in fact, a majority of farmworkers across the country—are undocumented immigrants. Close to 90% of farmworkers in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking, and most of those born in Mexico. Over 50% of immigrant farmworkers nationwide are not protected by legal documents, and so, in this country, they have no legal rights. This lack of documentation contributes, along with a tight bottom line and a slim margin of economic error on the farm, to the horrible working conditions of the modern American farm.


When sociologists discuss patterns of migration, they have two terms to explain what makes a person move from one place to the next—they call them push factors and pull factors. The pull factors for farm work in the United States are that agriculture is a dangerous industry. Because the jobs are so life-threatening, and the pay is so low, the agriculture industry would either have to raise pay and improve conditions—or recruit workers from abroad, where there are more laborers, fewer jobs and much, much lower wages. The U.S. agriculture industry is primarily located in California, where a cheap and willing supply of labor is close at hand. Why provide healthcare and housing when you can just import undocumented immigrants instead?

The push factors are the things that make a person’s home country worth leaving behind. Let’s put it this way: the push factors are the things that make working 80 hour weeks hunched over in a field under the blazing sun for seven grand a year look like the American Dream come true.

Before you begin to think that the solution here is to close the borders and take those jobs back, I should make it clear that this is a pretty good deal for the U.S. too. Paying migrant farm workers next to nothing and having a constant stream of people willing to work cheap is what keeps us all in fresh produce, all year round, for pennies. It’s the reason why I can walk into a grocery store in the middle of February and buy a head of romaine for 99 cents. And if the cheap food itself weren’t benefit enough, the U.S. Social Security Administration has recently estimated that three out of every four undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes (in addition to paying the same sales and consumer taxes the rest of us pay), and that undocumented workers contribute six to seven billion dollars in Social Security funds that they are not eligible to claim.

Plus, show me the pools of American citizens out there just dying for a job picking lettuce in Oxnard.


Next time you consider all the standards to which you currently hold your food, or next time you wonder whether your standards aren’t unreasonably high, take a moment to remember the very real human face of that food. The price tag might look a little different.

Where Does Wal-Mart Fit Into the Food Revolution?

19 Sep

Wal-Mart’s made food news again this week with the donation of $1 million to Milwaukee’s urban farming mecca, Growing Power. As a result, a familiar conversation is kicking up over the role of large corporations in systematic changes to the food system.

Will Allen of Growing Power thus joins the ranks of non-profit leaders who must explain their fundraising practices, here making the argument that the food movement would do well to welcome large markets like Wal-Mart into the fold. Perhaps the most famous former supporter of such an alliance is Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, who made such an argument in, among other places, the movie Food, Inc.

Like it or not, it seems, Wal-Mart will always be a factor. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart announced an initiative in conjunction with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to stock healthier foods and keep produce prices low. This chart from The Economist shows the corporation as the third-largest employer in the world (second only to the U.S. and Chinese armies), and they aren’t going anywhere.

Organic food. Local food. Urban growing. What’s not to love, right? Is Wal-Mart developing a social conscience?

My take isn’t so optimistic. I think Wal-Mart wouldn’t be as big as it is were it not for savvy CEOs, and any businessman with a pulse can see that consumers are demanding more and better food options. And while some argue that it is Wal-Mart’s sheer size that makes it a valuable ally in the food movement (almost every link above includes the phrase “big enough to make a difference,”) I’m skeptical of using growth and anti-labor bargaining as a tool for that change, simply because it’s a tool already being employed by corporations.

Call me Pollyanna, but I hope for a food (and social justice) future that eschews the ‘bigger is better’ mantra of the past. If Wall Street was too big to fail, why can’t we see Wal-Mart as too big to do good?

But I’d love to hear what you think? Are Wal-Mart’s efforts to improve its food offerings genuine? Does that even matter? Should the food movement include or exclude large corporations? Can we afford to?

Food & Jobs Links for Labor Day

9 Sep

In honor of Monday having been Labor Day, and of President Obama’s job speech from last night, I thought I’d round up a series of links this week on food, labor, and the workforce.

First, the good news, and a report Mr. President would do well to pay attention to in launching a new infrastructure-based jobs initiative: the Union of Concerned Scientists on the enormous job creation potential of farmer’s markets and other local food sourcing systems.

This is an older report, but is still the most definitive on worker safety and rights in meat processing plants — a different beast from agricultural fields, but still deadly.

Barry Estabrook has written a great, concise overview of the problematic regulations surrounding children in the farm industry. It shocks most people not from farm states to learn that children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, and children as young as 16 can legally mix and spray pesticides. I know many farmers who rely heavily on their families as labor forces, so I think it’s important to find a balance on this issue, but that stricter regulations are absolutely needed.

Methyl iodide, a pesticide used primarily on California strawberry fields, is just one of the many reasons why being a farmworker is so dangerous these days, and California isn’t regulating exposure to the chemical their own government deemed highly toxic.

TribeHR, a human resources management team, this week used data from the OECD to measure workday length in hours globally. But the most interesting bit of this to me is the gender breakdown of unpaid work (down at the bottom of the link) which shows that women are still spending nearly four times as many minutes per day on cooking and food cleanup as men. So I guess food is still women’s work, globally anyway.

Finally, lest we in the rest of the country imagine that Hurricane Irene was a great big let-down (actually, I know a lot of East Coasters who think that, too) we should all remember those who are suffering the most: New York and Vermont small farmers, whose croplands were flooded and destroyed. Learn more, and how you can help, here.

Food For Thought From Readers

8 Jul

You may have noticed that I’ve started doing end-of-the-week roundup posts, full of interesting or relevant articles from around the food writing world that I haven’t had a chance to cover in more depth. I plan to continue that, but this week, I’ve got so much great feedback from readers of the blog, that I thought I’d do a reader/food blog friend roundup post this week. Enjoy!

In yesterday’s post, I asked whether or not you know who works for your food. My friend and fellow MFA graduate Liz over at Flexitarian Writer answered back with a post in her usual style of thorough, in-depth research on Tropicana orange juice.

When I asked for good food writing, I heard from a number of people, but got some really cool sounding suggestions from the fantastic short story writer Andrew Scott, who recommended Holly Hughes’ most recent roundup of the Best Food Writing, and Heat by Bill Buford, which you can listen to an excerpt of here. I’m especially excited to check that out, as I’m always a fan of book-length immersion journalism.

Some delicious-sounding recipes to check out in response to my video post of the World’s Easiest Recipe for other healthy and simple concoctions:

  • Cristina from An Organic Wife shared her homemade pizza crust recipe, which is a great go-to, because you can top pizza with whatever you’ve got on hand. I’m looking forward to giving this a shot, having only failed miserably at making pizza from scratch.
  • Celeste, who is eating her goodbye to my former city of Ithaca, NY passed on these delicious pasta dishes from Ithaca’s own, the world famous vegetarian mecca of Moosewood.
  • And Steve from Or Until Golden Brown suggested his hearty Sausage and Kale Bean Soup which I will definitely tuck away for the cold weather months. Fun fact: Steve and I have been friends since middle school, which means he knew me when I was a terrible cook. One afternoon, Steve, our friend Meredith and I were working on a project together for our ninth grade physical science class. Meredith was cooking hot dogs for lunch, and asked me to watch them for a minute while she went to the bathroom. She returned to find me staring intently at charred black dogs, smoke alarm nearly set off. In my memory, Steve was on the ground, he was laughing so hard at me.

A couple food writer friends have embarked this month on challenging themselves to eat locally, an endeavor that I think is totally plug-worthy. July is a great month to go local, the peak of summer harvest in most of North America. Check out travel writer Shelley Seale’s explanation of why she’s undergoing a month of eating local and organic, or get an update from Steff Says, on hoe her Locavore July is going so far.  Both are valuable resources for why local food matters, not to mention how to actually do it and stay sane.

Finally, if you’ve got the time, this video is a fascinating portrait of local food sourcing, wherein one village in Britain tries to develop an entirely independant local food system, in the fact of a post-oil economy.

Happy Weekend, All!

Who Works for Your Food?

7 Jul

I thought it was about time to come back around to another chapter in the saga of why I became/unbecame a vegetarian. I’ve already written about becoming a vegetarian to protest factory farming conditions for animals, and about the damaging health effects to people of lax safety standards for meat. But on the other hand, we’ve also explored how being a vegetarian doesn’t automatically make you healthier, and the ways in which environmental pollution burdens both industrial meat and commodities crops. Today I’m going to tackle another, lesser known negative output of the food industry that perhaps even implicates the produce trade more than the meat trade — or at least does so in a different way.

Who works for your food?

That is, who plants your food, who picks it, who packages it, ships it, stocks or repurposes it? Through whose hands does your food pass? And how are they being treated while they do so?

The short answer to “who” is mostly poor illegal immigrants. And the short answer to “how” is very, very badly. Badly enough that the United Farm Workers has crafted a response-messaging campaign to all the anti-immigrant backlash urging Americans to come and take the jobs we so virulently spout they have taken from us. (Stephen Colbert even took them up on the offer.)

In fact, it’s incredibly dangerous to be a farmworker in the industrial system.  Aside from injury by farm equipment, farmworkers have significantly higher rates of almost all types of cancer than the average American. This is largely due to the proliferation of toxic chemicals in their day-to-day work, specifically those from the pesticides they spray on our food.

So do we value the contributions these workers make to our daily lifestyle of year-round fresh produce? Shockingly, no.

In most cases, state governments are responding to the issues of immigrants in the field by passing laws that bar them from working or denying them the most basic of union organizing rights,  though our food supply depends on them. Meat packing plants suffer from this same level of gross disregard for human dignity, deporting immigrants and depleting the labor forces of entire towns.

And these discriminatory practices are not limited to only evil multi-national corporations. In fact, the large-scale organic industry has almost no regulation regarding the treatment of workers in the field, and even organic produce is not fully exempt from the presence of chemicals.

What do we do to rectify the situation? Well, the governor of Florida, for example, recently vetoed a bill that would provide financial support to retired workers sickened in the fields by these practices.

When I cover these topics, I do so not to say that everything’s f*cked so just give up trying. What I hope begins to emerge in this long-drawn-out narrative is the fact that there is no ideal, there is no single diet that, if subscribed to, will just automatically exempt you from the problems of the food system at large.

This is a reminder, or a wake-up call, to think about the people involved in the food industry the next time you pick up an avocado in January from Trader Joe’s. Farmworkers are often vulnerable populations, but we rely on them, every day. It’s in our best interest to make sure they are safe, protected, and well-paid.


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