What does sustainable food mean to you? Does it mean healthy, organic, pesticide free and GMO free? Does your definition also include sustainable workers’ rights?
Many Americans that purchase sustainably produced foods have only been conditioned to look for symbols like the UDSA Organic logo or packaging with organic Earth-like colors. We forget that there are people, like you and me, behind the sustainable food operations, that are not given their fair and basic human rights or credit for their hard work.
If the people who produce our food are not treated fairly, then how can we say that the product is totally organic or sustainable?
A package of tomatoes from the grocery store has a picture on it of a farm, maybe a cheerful family, with the sun rising behind a red barn. This is a picture perfect illusion. The food may look appealing because of the picture, but what if we put the real picture on it?
The real picture would maybe be of a few family members who own the farm, and many immigrants, authorized or unauthorized, fighting to keep their low wage jobs.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King Jr.
I am not saying all farms operate in this way because that is not true, but many work this way. Even some at your Farmer’s Market. They may produce sustainable foods, and have family members and mostly Caucasians working the booth, but that does not mean that we can assume that what we see is what we get. If a sustainable farm is going to claim that they are sustainable, it must also include that workers are able to live a sustainable life as well.
This means that workers are paid fair wages, have good housing, water and bathrooms on site, have breaks from the hot sun, and have safety training for farm work and from pesticides. I added the pesticides to the list because those workers deserve fair rights as well, even if pesticides do not belong to our definition of sustainable food.
The agricultural market is very competitive. That means that workers can easily be replaced if they are unhappy with the pay or have issues with the farm. Another worker will take their job despite low wages, because they need to live. This keeps wages low, but how can farm workers take care of their families with such low wages? Many keep quiet despite the injustices, just so they do not have to join the unemployment force. So how can farm workers demand for change if they can easily be replaced?
Imagine one day in the life of a farm worker:
Get up around 3 or 4 a.m. to hopefully be chosen to get on a truck that drives for maybe more than hour or two away to a farm with uncompensated time. So workers have already been at work for two hours or less unpaid. Then, they work all day in the sun, on their knees or bent over as their pick our baby arugula and bell peppers. Can you imagine being bent over all day with a bucket on your back as you pile pounds of produce into your bucket everyday of your life? Maybe there is a water and bathroom break, but it is very short because time is money. Workers are returned back to the pick up site later at night, uncompensated for their travel time. They may not even have time to spend with their children because they have to get up at 3 a.m. and do it all over again. And you can bet that an unauthorized immigrant worker will seldom stand up against these injustices.
How does your food taste now? Pretty bitter I can imagine.
Why should we care about worker’s rights? These workers make it possible for you and me to eat healthy food at lower prices. These workers take on jobs that many of us would never do. These workers are human beings –– like you and me.
What do we need to do to make a change? We need to do research. We eat food more than three times a day, yet many of us have no idea what it is we are actually eating. We are actually eating good food without responsibility. We give no credit to some of the hardest workers in the U.S. and around the globe. It seems that since a majority of our foods in the U.S. are processed, that we have forgotten that there are actually real people that produce agricultural and sustainable healthy foods.
We owe it to ourselves, workers and revoltionaries like agricultural labor activist Cesar Chavez to treat all humans the way you, yourself would like to be treated.
If we change the ways in which we buy our foods, we will change the ways we look at many other things in our lives. Maybe we will understand that there is more to a story, a people, or a region that we had thought. We will become more aware of our surroundings and the people around us.
Bring peace and justice into your home, and onto your table next time you and your family and friends enjoy a meal.
Please check out these websites for more information: coloradofarmworkers.com, CIW.org –– Coalition for Immokalee Workers, and sustainabletable.org. Or type Agricultural Workers Rights into your search engine to find news, articles and websites for more information.
Lindsay Friedman is a senior studying environmental science and sustainable development at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is an intern at elephant journal and has a part time job at The Fitter. She is also a leader of a local food campaign on campus called CU Going Local. She is a true Chicagoan turned mountain girl. Follow her on twitter, Laine0315.