When Mario Vargas showed up at the Washington, D.C., offices of representatives from his home state of Ohio in July, he shared stories from farmworkers who are getting sick from pesticides. Joined by his daughter and girlfriend, they made the rounds talking about how it feels to inhale pesticides while pregnant, how farmworkers don’t know what their basic rights are, and how many workers are afraid to tell the truth about what is really going on in the fields. Read more
It’s a tolerable 40 degrees in Mount Dora, Florida, where 18-year-old Selena Zelaya is from. Instead of hanging out with friends or working at her part-time job at McDonald’s, Zelaya braved the freezing temperatures in DC to lobby on an issue close to her heart: Farmworker protections. It’s her second time lobbying in DC on this issue. Read more
Nobody told Reina Lemus de Zelaya that her job as a farmworker was hazardous not only to her health, but to her unborn child. So when Lemus de Zelaya was pregnant with one of her daughters, she continued working in the agricultural fields in Florida. Not only was she continually exposed to pesticides while pregnant, when her daughter was born she even brought her baby to the fields in a stroller. No one warned her to do otherwise. Read more
Not even a decade has passed since Sergio Arau filmed A Day Without a Mexican, but 2012 may go down in history as the Year of No Meals Without a Mexican because of labor shortages in American fields and orchards. Since mid-year, there have been a growing number of state and nation-wide reports indicating that hand-picked vegetables and fruits produced in the United States will be unusually scarce this year.
This is not merely because of widespread drought but also because of a paucity of Mexican-born farm laborers remaining in the U.S. Earlier this season, the American Farm Bureau Federation predicted a $5 to 9 billion dollar loss in this year’s harvest of annual vegetable crops requiring hand-picking, largely due to a shortage of farmworkers.
In fact, many states—from California to Ohio—have suffered severe reductions in planted and harvested acreages over the last five years as the economic downturn and heated nation-wide debate over immigration have sent many farmhands back to Latin America. Compared to other harvest seasons, a 30 to 40 percent shortage of skilled harvesters this year has been confirmed by California farming organizations, which note that peaches, cherries and other premium crops are going unpicked.
But now a new report—Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance—reminds Americans just how much of their entire food supply is dependent upon labor, expertise, ingenuity, seeds, seafood, and water originating in Mexico. The report, released last week by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, was prepared for discussion at the first-ever Border Food Summit to be held September 16-18 near Nogales, Arizona, the most important inland food port-of-entry in the world. Read more
Last weekend in Oakland, protesters slowly amassed, holding signs pleading that “if Chipotle loves small farms then they should also love their farmworkers.” Primarily students and young adults, the group quickly moved down the narrow pathways of the farmers’ market along Grand Avenue to accumulate more supporters. In the end, they convened at the newly opened Chipotle food chain along Lakeshore Avenue to form a picket line of protestors.
The Coalition for Immokolee Workers (CIW), in alliance with The Student Farmworker Alliance, Just Harvest, and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida are coordinating protests in 25 cities this week as part of their plans for a National Day of Action. The CIW have been organizing since 1993 and their allies have been walking alongside them since 2001. Together, they are working with farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida on the Campaign for Fair Food, a grassroots farmworker-led campaign to change living and working conditions for those in the fields picking tomatoes. (Florida’s tomato industry is responsible for nearly all of the fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. between November and June.)
The Campaign applies pressure to food corporations, like grocery stores and fast food chains, in order to get them to sign the Fair Food agreement stating that they will purchase from farms that abide by a set of quality of life and living wage standards for farmworkers. Basic asks include an increase of one penny per pound of tomatoes picked, respect for workers, business transparency, and an enforced code of conduct for agricultural suppliers. These are not drastic asks, rather a human dignity not previously offered and now demanded for by a worker-run movement. For example, tomato pickers haven’t seen a salary raise in over 30 years. Read more
There is more interest in food now than at any point in our nation’s history. We have more standards with which to make conscious food choices than ever before. Yet while people want to know where their food is grown, how it’s grown, and when it was harvested, no one is really asking any questions beginning with “who”. Despite this tremendous interest in food, there is almost no interest in the people that pick it.
When I discovered these contradictions in my own life, I realized that I needed to make a film that would discuss these issues. Read more
When we think about the people behind our food, the familiar faces at the farmers market may readily come to mind. But the many other individuals who do the hard work of planting, growing, and harvesting that food may remain only a distant picture for us. These agricultural workers, who often have specialized skills and many years of experience, are generally among the least recognized and respected members of our food system.
As socially conscious eaters know, farmworkers are excluded from federal labor laws that guarantee the right to organize and, in some cases, they are not afforded basic protections such as minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation. According to the US Department of Labor, three-fourths of agricultural workers earn less than $10,000 annually. At many farms, the employment terms are not spelled out on paper, leaving even greater room for abuses. People of color and undocumented workers fare the worst in this system. Even on organic farms, although workers are exposed to fewer toxic chemicals, the labor conditions aren’t necessarily much better.
As recently reported in Grist, however, a growing “domestic fair trade” movement aims to formally recognize and reward farms that are working to address social justice. The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) has developed a set of fair labor guidelines under the Food Justice Certified label, which was born out of dissatisfaction with the US National Organic Program’s failure to address workers’ dignity and rights. Read more
Trader Joe’s relented last week and signed a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants employed in low-wage jobs in Florida. The agreement requires the grocery store to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to ensure better working conditions for tomato workers. 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
As the nation’s annual food fest approaches, let’s take a moment to express gratitude for farmworkers, the hard-working field hands who grow and harvest the abundance we’re about to eat on Thanksgiving.
Check out the videos from the recent conference TedxFruitvale: Harvesting Change hosted by the foundation wing of the sustainable-food focused Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO). The event, held at Mills College in Oakland, revealed in sharp relief and from first-hand accounts the back-breaking labor of those in the fields, many of whom are still exposed to life-threatening pesticides and labor in shocking conditions. But this day-long event was anything but a downer: The program also highlighted farmworker success stories and alternative ownership models to BigAg.
Photo: Tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, by Scott Robertson