Food Hypocrisy: Injustices Surrounding Modern Food
We must demand change to the way our food is harvested.
I'm on the phone with my mom, who's in the produce section of the Edinboro Giant Eagle, hoping to find a tomato that tastes like a tomato. But since it's mid-winter and tomatoes have traveled farther than most of us would for our vacations, her chances are slim.
"Should I buy the organic," she asks me, "or these vine-ripened? Or what about the heirlooms? Would they taste better?"
Ordinarily, I'd just say "Buy organic" and be done with it. But I've been reading the recent LA Times investigative report about barbaric conditions for Mexican tomato farmworkers. The report reads like CliffsNotes to The Grapes of Wrath. Forced laborers living in camps with no running water, bathing and washing clothes in irrigation ditches, and sleeping on crates in shacks. And the proverbial company store, where necessities are overpriced to keep low wages from being saved up for escape.
As John Steinbeck wrote, "There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success."
And so Mom's question takes on a heaviness. Somehow, the simple decision of what to eat — a basic necessity of all life forms — became enormously complicated, mired in contradiction and hypocrisy. And never is that more evident than during the holidays.
Jane Schuchert Walsh, a professor of Social and Organizational Studies at Gannon University who has researched this issue extensively, explains, "During the holidays, people are making a lot of food donations, but not many people are thinking about their connection to the larger food system. Charitable food donations solve short-term problems, but they don't provide long-term, sustainable solutions. We have to ask, do charitable donations simply subsidize the existing system that makes these donations necessary? Instead, how can consumers demand just practices from large agribusinesses and corporations so that everyone in the food system is treated fairly and with dignity?"
And demand we must, as the LA Times clarifies: "American companies have not made oversight a priority because they haven't been pressured to do so. There is little public awareness of harsh conditions at labor camps."
Powerful marketing, public relations and lobbying teams are employed by Big Ag to ensure we consumers never connect the dots between our dollars and the wealth of injustices surrounding modern food. So instead of helping the world become what we envision, we're helping corporations commit atrocities. We are bandaging a wound that we're also picking at. And while it's a worthy goal to feed others hungrier and less fortunate than we are, we ought to focus on the root of the problem: The way we're feeding ourselves.
Which brings me back to Mom's tomatoes.
Generally, organic anything has been produced more ethically. And at least the farmworkers haven't been exposed to dangerous doses of pesticides, which often make them sick after they've already moved on from their temporary jobs, leaving them no recourse for compensation. But the LA Times report about abuses in Mexico is fresh in my mind. So I give Mom the best advice I can think of.
"For now, buy your tomatoes at Walmart."
"Walmart?!" she asks incredulously. The poor woman has endured years of my blustery anti-Walmart crusading (sorry, Mom).
But in January 2014, Walmart made headlines when they joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program. This means that the tomatoes — and for now, only tomatoes — sold at Walmart are certified as having been harvested by people whose working conditions meet ethical standards. Fast food restaurants like Subway and Chipotle and foodservice corporations like Aramark have also signed on, and the list (available at www.fairfoodprogram.org/partners) is growing.
Walsh emphasizes that, "If you don't see the Fair Food Label, it is likely that you are connected, by being a consumer, to abuses in the fields, child labor, sexual assault, and in the most severe cases, slavery. But, by shopping at grocery stores that have signed Fair Food Agreements, such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Walmart, you can be sure that your tomatoes are harvested under fair, just, and ethical conditions."
This is wonderful news, if for no other reason than it demonstrates the fact that movements work. Thanks to consumer pressure, thousands of farmworkers are being treated with the sort of humanity we all deserve.
Meanwhile, thanks to collective pressure from employees, Walmart recently pledged to raise its starting wage above the federal minimum. Time will tell whether this is a meaningful policy shift or yet another brilliant public relations scheme. Regardless, these changes exemplify the mountain-shifting potential of social movements.
Thus Walmart — working its trademark public opinion magic — gets to be perceived as altruistic. Of course, this is the corporation also famous for driving neighborhood grocers out of business, and contributing to the rise of food deserts like the one discussed in a recent Reader article. The Erie County Department of Health states that seven of Erie County's ten designated food deserts — where "at least 33 percent of residents live one mile or more from the nearest grocery store or supermarket" — are right in the city of Erie. It's no secret that the corporate model of undercutting local grocers' prices is masterfully exemplified by Walmart. And it's also no secret that many of us have supported this model by shopping there, even as it's driven our fellow citizens out of business.
Still, Walmart's example of prioritizing farmworker justice should catalyze progress. But as The Nation highlighted in late November, "Walmart, which is known to be a major lobbying force on food stamp issues in Washington, appears to be suppressing wages and letting Uncle Sam pick up the slack. And it profits further as a purveyor of subsidized food: Of every dollar of food stamps spent in this country, roughly 18 cents is spent at Walmart." Also in November, Catholic Online concluded, "While the world's largest retailer takes pride in battling hunger, many of its employees go hungry."
Walmart, of course, is not the only corporate driver in our hypocritical food system. Nevertheless, the company is a perennial example of why we consumers must be diligent, if we wish to contribute overall to the greater good.
Meanwhile, retail employees' circumstances pale in comparison to the horrific conditions faced by farmworkers both abroad and on U.S. soil. And this is not an issue relegated to distant California or Florida farmlands. A 2004 report by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania states, "Each year, approximately 45,000 to 50,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers are employed in Pennsylvania to assist in harvesting the Commonwealth's fruit, vegetable, and mushroom crops. It is ironic that the efforts of migrant and seasonal farmworkers allow the U.S. population access to high quality and affordable foods while they may suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, poor health status, poverty, and low job security, and may live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions." The authors note, however, that "The lack of accurate data on the number of farmworkers is a nationally recognized problem," and "The exact number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Pennsylvania is unknown because these data are not systematically collected." On some sites, in fact, I found numbers closer to 100,000. A report by Dickinson University looked specifically at the enormous Pennsylvania apple harvest, which "attracts tens of thousands of Latino migrant laborers."
The recent trend towards eating locally-grown food has myriad positive implications. But with Erie County as a center of agriculture, we must wonder if some of these injustices are occurring right in our own backyards. And though most of our winter produce in Erie comes from far away, we are still participating locally in distant atrocities each time we shop.
Cesar Chavez, Co-Founder of the United Farm Workers, clarified the issue: "Every time we sit at a table to enjoy the fruits and grain and vegetables from our good earth, remember that they come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations."
In decades of dissociating from our food sources, we've endorsed cost-cutting measures without questioning how we can get produce from other continents for pennies. We've encouraged the sourcing of food from Big Ag companies with labor practices we voted out in 19th century. "Well, in this economy …" we rationalize, without finishing the thought; the thought that would have to end "… I need to save money any way I can, even if it means turning a blind eye to the horrors I'm financing."
It's an ugly truth, to be certain. But unless we demand change, we send a crystal clear message to Big Ag: "Go ahead and treat your employees in a way that completely opposes my personal code of ethics. Here is my money. I support you."
And so, while we donate to end hunger, we also perpetuate it.
The National Farm Worker Ministry states definitively: "This is the great paradox of our food system: The very people who work to feed the U.S. struggle to feed their own families."
Farmworkers are often paid per bucket of produce they gather, and multiple sources report typical per-bucket earnings at 40-50 cents. So let's take for example the sweet potatoes that were recently on many holiday tables. According to the North Carolina Farmworker Institute, this means that "a farmworker must pick and haul two tons of sweet potatoes to earn $50."
Meanwhile, we can buy organically-grown local sweet potatoes, from late summer into the holiday season, right here in Erie. One source is the Whole Foods Co-op. Devoted for more than 30 years to just employment practices and ethically grown food, the Co-op stocks only produce grown according to organic standards, serves as a drop-off for several year-round shares of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, and sources locally whenever possible. Co-op employees have toured several regional farms to see the ways in which food is produced, and farmers who sell their goods there verify in writing that they comply with organic standards, which typically translate into better conditions for workers.
Care Kerlin, Co-op general manager, says, "When you know where your food comes from, and you know the hands that have touched your food, that's real connection. It's sacred, and it has ancient roots. The closer you can get to where your food comes from, the better off we all are."
The bottom line is this: It shouldn't be so hard to buy our food without wondering who had to go hungry to get it to us. And if we all demanded fair food labeling at corporate food outlets, it wouldn't be. We could scan the produce section for foods labeled fair, and fill our carts without also filling the pockets of companies perpetuating the very conditions we wouldn't tolerate ourselves; conditions we often try to ameliorate during the holidays.
So Walsh offers this empowering point: "Fair Food Agreements resulted from consumer pressure. Consumers demanded that their grocery stores, fast-food corporations and food service providers use their corporate power to require just wages and working conditions from the tomato growers. If the growers don't abide by the agreement, the corporation will take its contract to another grower who does. So if you shop at a corporate grocer which hasn't signed a Fair Food Agreement, you can take a letter to the manager asking the store to do so (an example letter is available at: ciw-online.org/Resources/tools/manager%20letters/SSLTR.pdf). Corporations will yield, eventually, to what their consumers want."
Obviously, there is some truth to that aforementioned "in this economy …" mindset. Millions of Americans live in poverty, thousands right here in Erie County. It would be pompous and naive to suggest that members of our community who have extremely limited access to food, let alone the resources to purchase it selectively, should then add consumer guilt to their considerable burdens.
But thousands of people locally and nationwide do have the luxury of choice. Thousands give generously of their resources throughout the year. If we leverage some of that benevolent energy, we can collectively pressure our corporate food providers to stop the injustices we refuse to support. We can dig out the weed of hunger at its taproot, and eliminate it for good.
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.