It’s Not Just the Farmers vs. the Consumers

Recently, I read an article about fairness in our food system, and whether defending the farmer or the eater meant betrayal to either one. Not until the end of the article do “others” enter the equation. Farmworkers are frequently an afterthought in food policies and, at times, they are even excluded from the conversation all together. I was happy to see them recognized, however briefly, but I propose bringing the “others” in at the beginning of the argument. By adding a third party—the farmworker—it begins to get to the core of what fair really means.

Although a novel idea for some, I cannot take credit for this. Many people before me have been drawing attention to the fact that there are more than two players in our food system, and I think it is important enough to revisit. Often times, farmworkers are left out of an equation in which they play a vital role, as seen in the agricultural communities of Alabama and Georgia. If this conversation is truly centered upon fairness, we must expand the conversation beyond the dichotomous argument of whether fairness for the farmer means injustice for the consumer or vice versa.

Farmworkers are among the least paid and under-protected workers in America. The average farmworker family of four earns just $17,500 annually, well below the national poverty level for a family of this size. Sadly, farmworkers typically can’t even afford to buy the very fruits and vegetables they spend their days harvesting. Because of their low wages, most farmworker families do not have access to affordable daycare. Often times, this results in families bringing their children to work alongside them in the fields; more hands hopefully equal more money. At best, farmworker children hired as workers earn the same low wages as their parents, though they often end up losing much more.

Fatalities in farm work reached 596 in 2010, which constitutes the highest fatality rate of any industry at 26.8 per 100,000 workers.  The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is especially significant compared to their peers employed in nonagricultural industries. Between 2003 and 2010, 130 children, 15 years of age and younger, died on the job. Seventy-three percent of those deaths were children employed in agriculture. If the conversation is going to revolve around fairness, where is the justice in a child being able to legally work in agriculture for an unlimited number of hours outside of school at the age of 12, under conditions deemed illegal in nearly every other industry?

Beginning in 2009, the Children in the Fields Campaign mobilized a grassroots initiative across the country to improve the quality of life for migrant and seasonal farmworker children. The campaign seeks to raise awareness of the plight of these young workers and ensure they have a seat at the table with decision-makers in their communities. Much has happened at the national and state level concerning farmworkers. As the public becomes educated and more involved, there will be further conversations on who picked our food and how that food makes its way to our tables. As witnessed in North Carolina with YouthSpeak 2011, there is a great deal to learn. As Drakage, the author of the post points out, “The only way we can get there is through building a movement that derives strength by being for both. For youth and elders; for food access and for food traditions; for farmers, workers, and eaters. One relies on and strengthens the other.” America’s farmworker children can no longer continue to be marginalized.

So I ask you, what do you suggest be done about the growing challenges of production, sustainability, accessibility, and equity? These are not isolated issues affecting just one group of society. We are all affected; therefore, we all need to be a part of the solution. My counterparts in the fair food movement are thrilled, as am I, that a conversation has begun about where our food comes from and how it’s picked. But talk alone does not provide affordable and fair food. It’s obvious from the article that we have a broken food system that is failing everyone involved. The farmer is having a difficult time staying in business, the consumer is having trouble making ends meet, while the farmworker continues to be exploited. Food is one of the few common denominators among all people, so shouldn’t we all have a hand in creating a food system that is beneficial to us all?

Learn more about child labor in U.S. agriculture and join us in supporting fair food and advocating for fair living wages for all farmworkers.

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