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The Ethics of Eating: Consider the Farm Workers

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June 22, 2009

By Eric Haas, Contributing Writer

On a recent Saturday, I took a trip out to rural Oregon with about 20 other "Slow Food" members. We woke early and drove through the dreary morning rain, leaving behind the streets of Portland for the vast agricultural fields of nearby Marion County. We were seeking the origins of our food.

I helped to organize the event, which was billed as an opportunity to "Share a Meal with the People Who Feed Us." The idea was to meet with immigrant farm workers and to compare the different places they live – in housing provided by their employers, or by a local nonprofit, the "Farmworker Housing Development Corporation" (FHDC). FHDC staff agreed to take us on a tour of the farms and their development in Woodburn, after which we would share a potluck lunch with the residents there.

The day was inspired largely by "Carlo Petrini," the founder of "Slow Food," who insists that our food be "Good, Clean, and Fair." By this he means that our food should be fresh and healthy, it shouldn’t depend on chemicals that destroy the environment, and the people who grow it should be well-compensated for their work.

His ethics, I think, are admirable. They are simple and elegant. Unfortunately, however, they can be quite difficult to put into practice.

Many of us know that the ways we typically grow, process, distribute, and consume food in this country are harmful to our health and the environment. As a nation, we are coming to realize the fact that when we eat a "conventional" tomato, for instance, we literally ingest the toxic chemicals sprayed on our crops; not only are waterways polluted and soils degraded, but we get cancer too. These problems affect us intimately, and given the state of our healthcare system, as well as the threat of global climate change, they affect us in ways that are increasingly difficult to ignore.

It's no wonder, then, that the "good" and "clean" elements of Petrini's ethic have become major preoccupations in the American mind. And because of our increased awareness, I think, we've already developed some relatively good ways to address our concerns; on the West Coast, at least, it’s easy to find fresh and locally grown organic produce almost any time of year.

The problem is that this doesn't necessarily account for how "fair" the food is.

Long hours and low pay are the industry standard, even for many organic and small-scale farms. In the worst cases, farm workers are held against their will and forced to labor as indentured servants – continually paying off debts to their employers – in a system legally defined as slavery. In Florida, for example, a state that one federal prosecutor recently called "ground zero for modern-day slavery," at least "five operations involving more than 1,000 workers have been prosecuted for violation of anti-slavery statutes since 1997."

It's unclear how pervasive these conditions are, or where exactly they exist; it is clear, however, that they're far more common than we’d like to admit. They represent an egregious extreme of abuse, but they are also part of a continuum; the mistreatment of agricultural workers is a deeply entrenched problem in this country, and it has been for a long time. In 1972, for example, the average life expectancy for a farm worker was 47 years; in 2008, it was 49.

According to FHDC staff, rates of cancer, asthma, birth-defects, and tuberculosis for farm workers all hover somewhere around 25 percent above national averages. In general, hard work, toxic chemicals, and poor nutrition degrade workers' immune systems; unsanitary and crowded housing exposes them to disease, and low pay makes decent medical treatment extremely difficult to find. The few laws that prohibit these scenarios are rarely enforced, and the workers' "illegal" status makes them incapable of reporting abuses or advocating for their rights.

A large proportion of immigrant laborers live on the borders of the fields where they work, typically paying their employers about $50 weekly to stay in run-down shacks and trailers. The statistics on just how many people live this way don't exist, because the studies haven't been conducted; as a rule, these farms hide the housing far from view and guard it with private security forces. Entry onto the property is illegal, even for union organizers, unless a worker has given them an explicit invitation to enter. Such invitations are virtually impossible to receive, of course, since it would mean instant dismissal and deportation for whomever made it.

On tour

The harvest season in Marion County won't start for another few weeks, so the farms we visited on Saturday were empty; they were also unguarded, however, which gave us the rare opportunity to see housing facilities up close.

Even with a fresh coat of paint on the exterior, the buildings were obviously dilapidated. Inside, concrete walls were stained with black mold and rust. Bedrooms were crammed with bunk beds, and the mattresses were nothing more than wooden planks, or sheets of carpeting. The air was dank and sickly. The floor was smeared with a brown layer of bacterial mud.

At both farms we visited, it looked as though someone might recently have made an effort to clean. The dirt was smudged, and the stains had been scrubbed. In both cases, however, the years of accumulated grime remained. Set against a blue sky, nestled in a blossoming field of tulips, these conditions seemed particularly horrendous.

Fire extinguishers were mounted in every doorway at the first farm we saw, and a sign was posted in the kitchen at the second, imploring workers to clean up after themselves — as though safety and sanitation were genuine concerns. The emptiness of these gestures was painfully ironic. Absurd, it seemed, or cruel.

Who built these hovels? Who could charge rent to the people who live here? Is it simply a matter of farmers trying to meet the "bottom line"? Are the economics of agriculture really so dire?

Whatever their proximate cause, what do these conditions say about us, the people who pay money to support them? What does it mean that we feed ourselves with food grown from filth and suffering?

The people who live here

Though we weren't able to meet anyone currently living on the farms on Saturday, we did meet many who had lived on them recently, or whose parents had.

During lunch at the FHDC development, which is called "Nuevo Amanecer" or "New Dawn," I spoke with a woman who had moved from a farm in eastern Oregon, where she had shared a single trailer with 10 other workers. "Oh, and with their children," she added as an afterthought, as though it hardly made a difference; "there must have been four or five children too."

What could life possibly be like for 15 or 16 people living inside of one trailer?

I tried to imagine, but I couldn't. And I tried to stop myself, but my mind impulsively wondered who had grown the vegetables sitting so innocently on my plate; what were their lives like? What hardships did they endure?

I asked the woman, who prefers to go unnamed, whether she ever thought about such things while she ate. "I'm not stupid," she said; "I know where my food comes from. What can I do about it?" she asked me. "I've got to eat something."

The resigned look in her eye as she said these words – the profundity of her sadness – was overwhelming.

The things I encountered on Saturday were hard and ugly; they were difficult for me to understand. They were so distant from my daily experience that I've had to fight the impulse to forget, or even disbelieve what I saw. I continually have to remind myself, as another FHDC resident explained to me, "Es muy duro, pero es una realidad" — "It's very hard, but it's a reality."

Transforming reality

Before I went to Marion County, my awareness of these problems was abstract; I read about them and was troubled, but only in a vague way, the way that any injustice might irk my conscience. As a consequence, the solutions I sought were similarly vague. I thought of grappling with labor law, immigration reform, NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Farm Bill; ultimately, however, the prospect of affecting such a mess of legislation was debilitating, and I didn't do anything at all.

After visiting Nuevo Amanecer, I’ve become convinced that even with this legislation in place, relatively small and incremental changes can be enormously significant. The FHDC's accomplishments in Oregon — like those of the UFW in California, or the CIW in Florida — provide a clear example of the way that a few dedicated people can make a tangible difference in others' lives.

The apartments at Nuevo Amanecer are quiet and comfortable. They're small, but they're clean, they're affordable, and they even seem to foster a sense of communal pride amongst residents. The people who live here are all farm workers, most of them are seasonally unemployed, and they all make less than $16,000 annually. If it weren't for the intricate combination of federal funds and private donations subsidizing rent, these families would be living in the fields.

Nuevo Amanecer has a community center where teachers offer lessons in computer skills and English; there's green grass for kids to play on, and a community garden for growing food. The residents I spoke with regularly called their situation a "gift from God," a "blessing," and a "relief." The development provides them respite from grinding poverty and all that it entails — illness, fatigue, gang violence, an overwhelming sense of isolation — which can otherwise destroy the fragile ties holding peoples' lives together.

FHDC has spent almost 15 years establishing their facilities in Woodburn, but even so, there's far from enough housing available. At present, there’s a waiting list with 250 families on it, and the staff estimates it would take them more than 57 years to meet existing demand. And that's only in Woodburn.

Clearly, this isn't a panacea. But it is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, and it's doing incalculable good for those who can live there. To my mind at least, it's a reason for hope.

Another approach

Nuevo Amanecer may be a reason for hope, but it does little to address the systemic nature of the problem at hand. As any of the staff there will tell you, it is only one small component of the nationwide efforts that are necessary. Given the historical difficulty of affecting large-scale change on this issue, however, the specifics of such a solution are far from clear. And new strategies seem to be in order.

Can we use what we've learned from the efforts to make food "good" and "clean" to also make it "fair"? Could we use a combination of market forces and government regulations like those that created the Organic label to develop a "Humane" label, perhaps — something like a domestic version of "Fair Trade"?

The idea seems promising. The danger, however, is that any standards – like their Organic counterparts – would be extremely difficult to enforce, and we'd be creating powerful economic incentives for farmers to violate them. Moreover, the integrity of the standards – again, like their Organic counterparts – would be susceptible to the influence of large corporations, who continually exert pressure on government officials to include as many questionable practices as possible under the "ethical" label.

An Oregon Tilth inspector recently informed me that "23 percent" of organic produce was found to have toxic chemical residue on it. He was proud of this statistic, as though it were proof of the efficacy of enforcement. While it is certainly better than the 73 percent found in conventional produce, it’s hardly good enough for my tastes, and I told him as much.

"Grow your own," he said. "Nothing's perfect."

Sadly, I think he's right. Whether the contamination is willful or inadvertent, caused by the spray from neighboring fields, it seems obvious that no scheme of classification and inspection will ever be foolproof.

While a "Humane" label could probably improve many workers' lives considerably, but it would also be insufficient on its own.

After all, we don't feel comfortable leaving minimum-wage regulations or fire codes up to consumer choice, so why should we allow the market to dictate the lives of immigrant farm workers? This is a matter of human rights, and relying solely on a label to effect change would still allow injustice to continue – by sanctioning it, in fact, as "conventional."

Ultimately, it may be true that the only way to understand where your food comes from, and to feel good about it, is to grow it yourself.

Before you object that such an ideal is impossible to achieve, consider the fact that in 1943 — at the height of our national Victory Garden enthusiasm — almost 20 million Americans were gardening. Collectively, they produced approximately "40 percent" of the food consumed in the country at the time.

Think back to the Victory Gardens, but also to the communal gardens, the neighborhood kitchens, and the food-storage facilities that cropped up across America; in the past, we've been able to radically transform the ways in which we feed ourselves when we’ve felt the need to do so.

Think back, then, but also think forward; think of "the aquaculture schemes", and the "the rooftop gardens" being established in cities today. The contemporary possibilities of small-scale urban food production are still waiting to be explored. Our metropolitan landscapes can be remade into fertile ground.

Whatever the promise of such an approach, however, complete self-sufficiency probably isn't viable for all Americans. And growing your own — while it does allow you to feel virtuous and independent — doesn't change the living conditions for farm workers. Any produce grown on farms would still depend upon inhumane treatment, and our silence in this matter — even non-participation — is still a form of complicity. No matter where we shop or what we grow, we should not ignore the importance of comprehensive legislative change, nor places like Nuevo Amanecer.

Rather than regress into a tirade, however, I will end with a simple opinion: we need to develop our ethical relationship with our food.

With this as a foundation, allow me to make a few additional suggestions. First, try to learn where your food comes from. Enable yourself to make it better, cleaner, and fairer, even if it can't be perfect. Go out to the farms near where you live; try to meet the people who grow your food. Better yet, buy directly from farmers you know, or grow your own and share your bounty with neighbors. Finally, if you feel so inclined, take some time to share your experiences with others; we all have a lot to learn, and I, for one, am curious to hear what you think.

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