On July 10, Frederico Lopez couldn’t take it anymore. The berry picker says he was constantly barraged with verbal abuse by his supervisor, while earning only 30 cents per pound of berries. “It’s unjust to yell at us like we are animals, simply for asking for a fair wage” he told his supervisors that day. It is no surprise that Lopez spoke up. At such a low rate, he and his fellow workers have to pick at an impossible speed just to earn Washington State’s $9.19 minimum wage. Read more
In August, the Fresno Art Museum opened an exhibition entitled, “California: A Landscape of Dreams.” The show, which runs through the end of December 2011, provides a rare forum for art that responds directly to the state’s agricultural landscapes and politics. Linda Cano, Executive Director of the Museum and the curatorial visionary behind the show, explains, “the guiding principle was to show varied perspectives on the perception and reality of land use in California.” A series of paintings in the central atrium highlight “idyllic pastoral scenes of California rivers, meadows, valleys, coastal areas, and farmlands.” But as museum-goers peel off into the galleries featuring installations by esteemed Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains (the show’s headliner) and the photographs of San Francisco-based photographer Barron Bixler, a starkly different portrait of California–and especially the Great Central Valley–takes shape. Read more
The terms “local” “organic” “sustainable” and the like have become so mainstream that as someone who writes about these issues I find myself searching for new ideas to explain the tenets of why changing our food system is important. Even if you are not involved in the “good food movement” at all, a McDonald’s aficionado who revels in hydrogenated oils and spraying your lawn with Roundup, you have heard of “local” “organic” and “sustainable.” But while this now cliché vocabulary runs rampant even in Walmart, why then do we not have the same exposure to the term “fair”? Read more
Two weeks ago, my coworker Karen and I left the office a little early and walked across Manhattan to the Trader Joe’s store in Chelsea, where a small group had gathered making signs and chatting. Among them were members of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots group working to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers. Over the course of about 45 minutes, dozens more people filled the sidewalk in front of the store, including labor activists from the Jewish Labor Committee, Just Harvest USA and the Farmworker Solidarity Alliance, as well as local youths and a handful of musicians from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.
Trader Joe’s, along with Publix, Kroger, and Dutch-held Ahold grocery chains (which include Giant, Stop & Shop, Martin’s and Peapod), are the most recent targets of CIW’s Fair Food Campaign. Over the last nine years the Coalition, together with partner organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance, has managed, through well-organized consumer campaigns and sometimes boycotts, to convince some of the food industry’s largest corporations (including Taco Bell/Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods and Compass) to agree to the tenets of Fair Food: an extra penny a pound for tomatoes (nearly doubling the wages for pickers, who’ve not seen a raise since the mid-1970s), a labor Code of Conduct, greater transparency in the supply chain and incentives for growers that respect human rights. Read more
In Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s op-ed this week in the Des Moines Register, he recognized that hunger could not be solved by raising production, because production is in fact at record highs. Grappling with how these increases in productivity have not led to increases in profit, he explained that even though we’ve lost a million farmers in the last 40 years, “income from farming operations declined as a percentage of total farm family income by half.” He continued, “Today, only 11 percent of family farm income comes from farming, which may explain why fewer young people go into farming and why many families rely on off-farm income opportunities to keep their farms.” Vilsack gets the situation right, but his remedy is wrong. Instead of encouraging diversity and altering the pattern of overproduction which pits large farm owners against small by shrinking margins, the Obama administration’s way of dealing with the discrepancy in rural America is through increasing trade.