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Focusing on Farmworkers

August 29, 2013

migrant_workers_ji.topFarmworkers are often the forgotten face of American agriculture. While we often focus on smallscale alternatives to industrial agriculture (CSAs, farm-to-school, fair trade, and so on), it’s also important to draw attention to the daily struggles of those most affected by the industrial food system—farmworkers. Our industrialized food system depends on an estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States. The vast majority of these workers are foreign born, and more than half never had the opportunity to complete high school. These workers are at the heart of the $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry in the United States. But many lack legal status. They work under harsh conditions, often for wages that place them and their families far below the poverty line. And they are often exposed to powerful herbicides and insecticides that lead to disproportionately high rates of cancer and other diseases.

The TEDxFruitvale event in 2011 brought together many outstanding speakers focusing on the challenges faced by farmworkers. Unfortunately a followup event was cancelled by TED because it was “not focused on innovation.” The presentations from the 2011 event are available through YouTube. Some of my favorites were:

Nikki Henderson highlights the ignored connections between the black power and farmworker movements in the 1970s. Between 1969 and 1973, the Black Panther Party and the United Farm Workers Movement worked together on issues today we would broadly define as food justice. The collaboration broke down in the mid-1970s as the Black Panther Party came under attack from the US government. Henderson presents a fascinating—if too short—history and raises questions about the implications for food justice coalitions today.

Will Scott, President of African American Farmers of California, outlines the history of sharecropping in the United States and explains why we need to bring back African American farmers.

Director and photographer Roberto Romano examines the exploitative conditions under which children as young as twelve years old labor in American farm fields. According to Romano, 20 percent of the food that reaches American tables was harvested by children working under conditions made illegal anywhere the haroutside the farming sector for wages that place them (and their entire families) at levels far below the federal poverty line. Romano’s film, The Harvest, is on my “to-watch list.”

Flavio Cornejo explains the impact of strenuous farm work on the human body, highlighting what happens when farmworkers spend eight hour or more per day—often six day a week—bending over to work in the field.

Eric Schlosser argues in a presentation entitled “If You Eat, You’re Responsible” that we all have responsibility for improving the conditions under which farm workers labor.


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  1. Nice post! if we want a better food system, it has to be better for everyone and all too often, farmworkers are forgotten and their voices not heard.

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