In the last decade, food in America has gone from a lifestyle pursuit to serious issues, encompassing concerns about food safety, health and even industrial concentration. But the question of labor—just who’s out there picking all those vegetables anyway—has remained on the periphery, a silent and uncomfortable contradiction alongside calls to pay farmers premium prices for their food.
Enter last Friday’s TEDxFruitvale: Harvesting Change, a daylong conference at Mills College that was webcast to viewing parties across the country—and the first TEDx event focused on food and labor. Backed by national thought powerhouse TED and sponsored by the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, TEDxFruitvale sought to plumb the depths of America’s farm labor situation in the context of the sustainable food movement.“We talk a lot about farms, but we don’t talk a lot about farmworkers,” Bonnie Azab Powell, who helped host the event for the foundation, told the audience.
To remedy that, organizers brought together polished talks from some of the food politics world’s most celebrated voices (and providing running translation into Spanish): writers Eric Schlosser and Barry Estabrook; workers rights activists Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers and Gerardo Reyes-Chavez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; and food justice leaders like Nikki Henderson of the People’s Grocery and Joann Lo of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Within the 18 speakers and three musical groups (each of which closed a session of the conference), a few common threads emerged.
Speakers began with an exploration the daily realities of farm workers, bringing the expertise not only of farmers and their workers to bear but their doctors and chroniclers, too. Two documentary filmmakers screened powerful footage from their films interviewing farm workers, with Sanjay Rawal screening a work in progress while Roberto Romano showed clips from the award-winning La Cosecha, which profiles three teenage migrant workers. “None of them want to remain in the fields,” Romano said, pointing out that under federal law children can go to work in agriculture as young as 12. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they have equal rights under the law.”
But if there was a consistent theme, art historian Carlos Jackson provided it in his explanation of the iconography of the 1970s farm worker movement, which emphasizing the importance of identifying workers as actual men and women. (One poster, declaring “I am somebody,” echoed Jesse Jackson’s famous speech of the same name at Wattstax in 1972.) In the 1970s, said Carlos Jackson, growers told documentarians that “we literally did not see the workers as people, rather we just saw them as another item in the production chain that it took to produce goods.”
The discussion then moved to organizing efforts, focusing on past victories and battles. Nikki Henderson of the People’s Grocery revealed a long-forgotten collaboration between the Black Panthers and the UFW—most notably in the Black Panthers’ boycott of the party’s favored drink Bitter Dog, a wine made by a company against which the UFW was battling. Meanwhile, Andrea Cristina Mercado from Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a domestic workers rights group, explained the historic common ground of farm and domestic workers: “In the 1930s, for the National Labor Relations Act, domestic workers and farmworkers were excluded from those protections, and they were excluded to appease southern segregationists.” Eric Schlosser, in a pre-recorded talk, put it more bluntly, saying that when it comes to the farm labor problem, “at the heart of this is racism,” going on to remind consumers that “it’s really easy to blame the growers or the corporations…[but] if you eat, its your responsibility.”’
The final conversation of the day centered on the consumers’ relationship to farm work, skipping from experts in verifying labor practices within the garment industry (“People ask me, ‘What are good companies?’” said Heather Franzese of fair trade clearinghouse Transfair USA. “I ask then, ‘What are your priorities?’”) to workers from the nation’s only unionized organic farm (“I’m here to tell you we’re not special, but we do stand out in an industry with a history of exploitation and abuse,” said Sandy Brown, farm manager of Swanton Berry Farm.)
But it was Barry Estabrook’s tale of Lake Apopka, a once-pristine lake near Orlando, Florida that local growers turned into the state’s most polluted body of water, that summed it up neatly. After nearly 70 years, the growers have been bought out for $103 million, $50 million spent on cleanup, $2 million for wildlife research projects to determine the problems caused by the pollution. Meanwhile, a proposed $500,000 clinic for local workers—three-quarters of whom, in a 2006 study, were found to have health problems, most likely due to the pollution—was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott. “Maybe we’re being too hard on Governor Scott,” concluded Estabrook. “How can we expect our politicians to put more value on farmworkres than the people who elected them to office do?” He paused. “And the people who elected them to office? That’s us.”