How often do you think about farm workers when you choose your food, cook it, or write about food? Yeah, I thought so. Me too.
Last week I went to a talk about agriculture and social justice by writer Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation; Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW); and Lucas Benitez, co-director of the coalition.
Schlosser spoke plainly about how conditions for farm workers have not improved since he took a year to write about the servitude of strawberry pickers for the Atlantic in 1995. In fact, he said, it’s worse now. Minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is now one-third less than pay in the 1960s and 1970s. And on top of poor working conditions and pay, some states have passed draconian anti-immigration bills that have terrorized farm workers and cost farmers money.
What struck me most about what Schlosser said is how the food movement does not seem to care. As food writers, we’re part of the food movement too. We write about food, farmers, even animals, but we don’t write about who supplies our food. Yet we should be grateful to farm workers for making it possible for us to eat healthy food every single day, he argued, and help them earn a living wage, with decent working conditions.
So as food writers, how likely are we to cover this topic, and how does it fit in with the writing we already do? Granted, most of us aren’t going to choose a career as investigative reporters, such as Schlosser or Barry Estabrook. A contributing writer to Gourmet, Estabrook wrote about tomato pickers in 2009, with a provocative subtitle: “If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person in virtual slavery.” I’ve read that former editor Ruth Reichl said one of her proudest moments as Gourmet’s editor-in-chief was publishing that article. Estabrook went on to write Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, with an endorsement from Reichl on the cover. If you haven’t read the book, it’s an eye-opening look about how our thirst for tomatoes on burgers creates human misery.
It might be easier to take action outside our purview as food writers. We can educate ourselves on this subject, and it might affect decisions we make. We could ask the farmers at the farmer’s market we frequent about how they treat their workers, for example. Or we might write a letter to Trader Joe’s for not supporting the penny-per-pound increase desired by the CIW.
But if you write about about the pleasures of eating, or if you educate people about the food system and where our food comes from, where does the subject of compassion and fairness for the people who pick our food come in? What is our role?