Are Your Progressive Eating Habits Meeting Medieval Working Conditions? ~ Lindsay Friedman

Via elephant journal
on Feb 13, 2012
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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.

Bread for the World

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?

Randy Bayne

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:, –– Coalition for Immokalee Workers, and 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.




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4 Responses to “Are Your Progressive Eating Habits Meeting Medieval Working Conditions? ~ Lindsay Friedman”

  1. I wonder if you could acknowledge the depth of the discrepancy between what we aim to do and what we do. I mean, doing research is one thing, but it's a luxury. What do the workers on the farms you're talking about eat themselves? Here in Ireland, if I live for a week on dahl and rice (yep, I'm a yogi) and it says 'fair trade' and 'organic' on the packet (but more often, it doesn't), what about the journey that food has made to here? The people at each stage have, themselves, to eat. What do they eat? Where does that come from? Complicated, isn't it? How do we untangle ourselves from a web in which we are totally enmeshed, by virtue of being a part of human society? We can take small steps, for sure, if we can afford it: eat organic, grow our own (if we have that opportunity). But let's get off the moral high ground here. If we can grow our own it's because we have the luxury of time in which to dig, fertilise, sew, weed, water, protect and, if we're really lucky, harvest. That time's available because we're in positions of relative privilege. But society's such that privileged positions are only available to a relative few, because so many more work endless hours, and are dependent for their food either on fast food joints, which, in their turn, churn out as cheap a product as possible – and so the circle turns. Those of us outside the loop have little right to condemn the rest unless we are also prepared to dismantle the very system which allows us the luxury of time to debate it.
    Having said all this, I think the gentle picking apart of this systematic abuse of other, human and non-human, and, ultimately, of self, is necessary and healthy. We will not reach nirvana, but we may develop pockets of resilience, if we work hard, both on ourselves and on scrutinising and questioning systematic injustice. But we must always temper this with compassion: this systematic abuse was not developed in order to abuse, as much as in order to benefit (albeit a tiny proportion). If we can somehow appeal to that in ourselves which benefits from being in 'the bubble', and gently and compassionately ask more of ourselves, more restraint, more self-reflection, and more recognition of the intimate connection between what we're looking at and what we're looking with, then maybe we can behave less like crusaders, and more like penitents, asking for forgiveness from ourselves.

  2. Jill Barth says:

    I posted this to the Elephant Green Facebook page. Thanks for sharing!

    Jill Barth, Green Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Green on Facebook

  3. Ozz says:

    Lucy, you present an argument I think very worthy of consideration due to its recognition of more of the depth and nuances than the article provides, although I would suggest that each of us can play many roles, including BOTH crusader, when appropriate, and penitent.

    I would agree that the first step – necessary but not sufficient – is, as Lindsay points out, awareness – taking into consideration the plight of those workers who are exploited so that we can buy food cheaply. In other words, what impact do my choices have on others – seems to me anyone serious about ahimsa cannot avoid asking this question. The same applies when you stop in the gas station to fuel up your car, as much as when you buy food at your local grocer, whether that's King Soopers or Whole Foods or Natural Grocers or whomever. It applies when you buy your clothes, and electronicsl and everything else, too.

    Really, if you want to take these arguments about agriculture to their logical conclusion, you wind up at a point where the only truly ethical option is to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Which would entail (due to carrying capacity considerations) a necessary depopulation of perhaps 90% of humans currently existing – which presents the question of how such a thing could be ethically achieved.

    This may be worth perusing:

    In fact, most of the changes that will occur in agricultural systems in the coming decades will not be due to the choices of humanity (whether based on ethics or other factors), but rather to geophysical reality (aka peak oil). It is exceedingly likely that within a few years, or decades at most, something like two-thirds of humanity will find itself back in its traditional, food-producing role. This will rectify some of the social justice issues – while no doubt generating others.

  4. Daniel says:

    I’m sure that unjust working conditions exist in many agricultural communities, but it is not inherently so. I live and work on an organic vegetable farm the finger lakes region of new York. I am only paid 8/hr but that is supplemented with all the fresh veggies I can eat and cheap $150/mo housing. I am also treated as an apprentice so I am learning how to operate a farm of my own some day. All of the employees are treated well and none of us are migrant workers. The situation the author paints may occur in some places but the more you support small local farms the more you will see labor situations like my own.