Farmworker Wage Theft: As Common as Dirt

In the latest report by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, “As Common as Dirt,” produced in collaboration with The American Prospect magazine, reporter Tracie McMillan investigates how farm labor contracting–a ubiquitous, but relatively unknown, practice–often blatantly disregards labor laws governing wages, safety and health. She writes that it could be the most insidious source of abuse faced by farmworkers.

“Known in some circles as ‘custom harvesters,’ farm-labor contractors offer produce growers a ready workforce, but they also give these growers the ability to distance themselves from the people who pick their crops,” McMillan reports. “These contractors control the flow of money between farmer and worker as well as all the paperwork. They track hours worked, crops harvested, and wages paid and take responsibility for everything related to labor, from verifying immigration status to providing workers’ compensation.”

McMillan, who spent several months on this investigative report, tells the story of 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos, a California farmworker since childhood, who brought suit earlier this year against former employer Juan Muñoz Farm Labor Contractor. The suit alleges that the contractor routinely altered payment documents to undercount hours worked, failed to pay minimum wage or overtime, failed to provide safe or sanitary working conditions, and housed the workers in unsafe and unsanitary living quarters. Read more

Kitchen Table Talks: The Shifting Paradigm of Work in the Food System

Labor is embedded in every aspect of the food system, from those working in the fields, to restaurant workers, even to those baking their own bread at home. So why is labor so often left out of the discussion on local, sustainable food systems? Many organizations are now trying to change this paradigm, from new ways to organize and protest current practices to food businesses which take into account the quality of life of their employees.

These new approaches to achieve social justice in the food system and how they are a reflection of the changing dynamic of work in society will be the focus of the next Kitchen Table Talks event in San Francisco. Specifically we’ll look at national organizing around farm and restaurant labor and local efforts to create a good food economy. And we will ask the question, “Why do we all have to work, anyway?”

Panelists will include Chris Carlsson, historian and author of Nowtopia; Mariela Cedeño, Senior Manager, Social Enterprise & Communications at Mandela Marketplace; and Kay Cuajunco of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Read more

Wild Salmon Are Back on Menus in California, But Are They Here to Stay?

(Updates story with state and federal study on hatcheries)
In a new report, produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) in partnership with California Watch, reporter Maria Finn looks into the sudden resurgence in the salmon population on the California coast and explores whether the current boom will last. This year 820,000 Chinook are expected to swim the Sacramento River, up from 114,741 in 2011, and following a collapse in the population the two previous years.

“A certain amount of fluctuation in the annual salmon yield is natural, but some scientists think that the collapse in ‘08 and ‘09 was part of a more dramatic, and unpredictable, boom-and-bust cycle—and that the fishery could be in for more of the same,” Finn reports. “The problem, they say, stems from the fact so much of the catch—a full 90 percent—originates in state hatcheries.

Finn explains that a typical hatchery allows a wild population to remain just below the river’s dams to spawn. Meanwhile, other fish swim up cement fish ladders—graded man-made streams—that run around the dams and allow the fish to return to the hatchery. Read more

Photo Essay Shows Human Dimension of Food Stamps

More Americans than ever before, 50 million, are in poverty. One in seven people rely on the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps. And they are not always the people you might expect. Formerly middle class families, recent veterans, college graduates and farmworkers are featured in this new photo essay, the latest report produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network in collaboration with Switchyard Media, which first appeared on MSN. Read more

The Prince of Pickles: Sandor Katz on The Art of Fermentation

My first copy of Wild Fermentation, by author and fermentation extraordinaire Sandor Katz, was purchased after a friend had spoken about it as if it were a sacred text. Indeed, mine quickly got doused by brine as I put up beans and kraut, or splashed with dollops yogurt and other experimentations like honey wine. Now, Katz has released his most comprehensive fermentation tome to date, The Art of Fermentation. All of the traditional ferments, including vegetables, meat and dairy, are included. But also, Katz digs in with ideas from around the world. Fermented acorns? check. Forget Kombucha, have you tried Mauby? Or growing your own mold culture for tempeh? Its all there.

I got the privilege of learning more about the book and Katz’ perspective on fermentation as a radical practice in this recent interview. Read more

Cooking for Solutions: An Alternative to Chef-Provocateurs

Chefs are artists. Good ones draw people in with their inspired plates and atmosphere–performance art meets flavor. While deliciousness at a restaurant is first and foremost, more patrons are now also making decisions about where to eat based on the values behind the food–like social justice for the workers, healthy growing practices, and support for local economies.

Last week in an interview with The New York Times, chefs Thomas Keller–who has received many awards for his creative approach to food at restaurants French Laundry and the Bouchon empire–and Andoni Luis Aduriz, of the restaurant Mugaritz in Spain, took the Damien Hirst approach to feeding people: It’s about the experience and whatever it takes to create radical and inspiring food is more important than the potential impact on the environment. “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” remarked Keller.

Both chefs admitted that they buy local when they can, but didn’t want to focus on that as a practice. According to Aduriz, “to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

The good food movement would beg to differ. The proliferation of farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and small food businesses, and the increased visibility of food policy issues in the media all speak to a sea change under way. Read more

Pink Slime and Mad Cow Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Following on the heels of pink slime, mad cow disease (AKA bovine spongiform encephalopathy—or BSE) is back this week after a California dairy cow destined for a rendering plant that makes pet food was found to have the disease. So far, it looks like the beef industry is playing down the finding, hoping to dodge a loss in sales at home and abroad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was quick to tell Americans that our food supply is entirely safe.

But the re-emergence of mad cow and the conversation around pink slime has re-opened questions about our food system. It has exposed how food safety falls inevitably through the cracks in a country where over 9 billion animals are being slaughtered per year and budgets for the departments that oversee these processes are being slashed. The incredible media coverage of both issues reflects a growing consumer interest in more transparency in what we’re eating and how it’s being produced.

While this is only the fourth case of mad cow in the U.S. to date, experts argue that finding it this time was a stroke of luck. Of the 34 million cows we slaughter annually in the U.S., 40,000 are being tested by USDA for the disease, down from nearly 500,000 in 2005—about one tenth of one percent. Read more

Our Chemical Cocktail Evaluated in New Report

When it comes to the chemicals used in food packaging, there is much we still don’t know. After a recent U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) decision last month to not put further restrictions on bisphenol-A (BPA), a new report today in the Washington Post takes a closer look at studies that reveal that such endocrine-distrupting chemicals are not only ubiquitous, they might also be harmful at much lower doses than previously thought.  Read more