Food is a huge business. Growing it. Catching it. Manufacturing it. Packaging it. Cooking it. Baking it. Distributing it. Selling it. Producing TV shows about it. Writing about it. And for some of the real pros in food contests, even eating it can bring in the big bucks.
But there are many food workers who are most certainly not raking in the big bucks. Nor are they sufficiently recognized or respected for all that they do for us.
While a job in a colorless cubicle under fluorescent lights may seem inhuman at times to a good number of us (and I do not minimize the effect that can have on the human spirit), I have to admit I wouldn’t trade places with a dishwasher working day-in-and-day-out in the back of a hot kitchen or a field worker toiling under the relentless sun – with, may I add, nary a Starbucks break in sight.
These folks are heroic in their own ways – even if it’s just about doing what they need to do to support themselves and their families. But, of course, they are also an essential part of the food and food services industry we count on.
So as my contribution today to Blog Action Day 2011 – also World Food Day – I want to first give a heartfelt shout-out to every food worker out there. Thank you for all you do for us! You deserve our gratitude and appreciation – including tips where appropriate.
But I’d also like to focus in on one group in particular…the under-appreciated, barely-thought-about farm worker. Without them, we’d pretty much be eating air. And drinking it too.
A few facts about farm workers
- According to the most recent findings of the NAWS (National Agricultural Workers Survey), nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year and three out of five farmworker families have incomes below the poverty level.
- In addition to the low wages, farmworkers rarely have access to workers compensation, occupational rehabilitation, or disability compensation benefits.
- After a lifetime of work, many farmworkers are unable to prove their claim for Social Security benefits.
- Agriculture is consistently ranked one of the three most dangerous occupations in the nation. Exposure to the elements, pesticides and dangerous equipment are common in farm labor. Falls, heat stress, dehydration and pesticide poisoning are frequent injuries. However, agriculture is not subject to the safety legislation that protects workers in other industries.
- The EPA estimates that 300,000 farmworkers are poisoned by pesticides each year (This is the same food we’re eating, btw.)
- Migrant farm labor supports the 28 billion dollar fruit and vegetable industry in the U.S.; 85% of which are hand harvested and/or cultivated
- It is estimated that there are over 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States. These farmworkers travel throughout the U.S. serving as the backbone for a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. But for the vast majority, they (and their families) do not have access to basic health care – nor do they get adequate safety training.
And the tomatoes aren’t even good!
As if that weren’t enough, there is the unbelievably egregious practice of using slave labor in certain parts of our food industry – slave labor in 2011 in this country! In Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes, Barry Estabrook tells us about the use of slave labor in tomato harvesting in Florida.
Unfortunately, involuntary servitude—slavery—is alive and well in Florida. Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women in seven different cases. And those are only the instances that resulted in convictions. Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police, and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify, which means their captors cannot be tried.
“Unlike victims of other crimes, slaves don’t report themselves,” said Molloy, who was one of the prosecutors on the Navarrete case. “They hide from us in plain sight.” And for what? Supermarket produce sections overflow with bins of perfect red-orange tomatoes even during the coldest months—never mind that they are all but tasteless.
What we see in our supermarkets or when sitting down for a nice meal in a restaurant did not get there by accident. A lot of hard work goes into the food industry at all levels. A lot of hard work – and sometimes unthinkable conditions – that we never get to see and rarely think about.
So I think it’s especially fitting on this day (and all days) to bring some light to the lesser-known aspects of how food gets to our table, and hopefully also bring extra awareness and support for the workers themselves who make it all possible.
Just some food for thought.