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Are You Sure That Slaves Didn't Pick the Produce That Fills Your Fridge?

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.

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

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