Five of us stood around a table of appetizers left behind at the end of a reception, surveying the fruit heaped in mounds on two plates, the cheese piled next to crackers, the bowl brimming with hummus.
“What should we do with all of this?” one woman asked.
The evening’s security officer stopped by. “It’ll all get thrown out,” he answered.
A woman with round owl glasses exclaimed, “We can’t let that happen!”
I agreed with her, but I was tired. I was a guest, not the host, and aside from taking a plastic cup full of fruit with me to my car, I did not know what to do.
A tall, lean girl remarked off-handedly, “We toss out this much food every day at work.” An equally tall, lean boy confirmed, “I worked on a cruise ship, and we threw away tons of food.”
They each looked at the woman with the owl glasses. The girl shrugged. “It’s just food,” she said.
I used to feel the same way: it’s just food. It’s not pollution, after all; it will decompose and go away. It’s natural.
Tonight, however, I considered the fat cubes of watermelon and cantaloupe, the rounded pyramids of strawberries and perfectly polished blackberries. I saw beyond the plate to the food system that brought this out-of-season, distant food to Oregon in early June in cheap abundance. I thought about the vast acres of farmland coaxed to produce year after year, never lying fallow. I thought of the farmworkers laboring to plant, tend, and harvest the food. I worried about pesticides and fertilizers. I worried about the Mississippi River sweeping fertilizer and animal waste run-off into the ocean, feeding algae that consume all the water’s oxygen and choke out the fish, which move to less fruitful breeding waters and fall prey to overfishing. I thought about transportation and marketing and distributors and whoever cut the fruit and cubed it neatly.
All of the effort behind these platters of treats was going to be tossed in the trash. If I converted these plates of food into their equivalent in money or petroleum, would we so casually dump it all in the garbage?
It’s not just food. It never has been.
I thought I knew a lot about food until this past May, when I attended a lecture at Portland State University called "Building a Fair Food System." Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi, the authors of a new book titled Food Justice, led the panel. Large black-and-white photos of farmworkers framed the panel on the left and right. The photographs looked like images from The Grapes of Wrath: eight men piled onto three wooden bunk beds with no mattresses squeezed into a closet-sized room; homes made out of metal sheeting; no electricity or plumbing in sight. To my dismay, these images were from today, from right now. Mostly they showed the Florida farmworkers who harvest the majority of the tomatoes and oranges we eat and drink in the U.S.
Stories of contemporary slave labor shocked me even more when I read the book. Corrupt labor contractors literally enslave farmworkers, lock them up at night, keep them under armed guard during the day, take their wages, and steal their documentation and identification. It sounds unbelievable. But it’s true.
How can I not know this about my food? How do I not see this? No matter how connected I try to get with my food, how aware and conscientious, I am still literally miles away from the source of my food. Obviously, most of us are, or this certainly would not be happening, no matter how cheap it might make prices at the grocery store.
In the 1990s, there was a boycott of Taco Bell for using tomatoes harvested inhumanely in Florida. Vans and buses of mostly college students rolled around the country on “Truth Tours,” raising awareness of the sweatshop-style practices and slave labor behind those diced-up bits of red tomato in Taco Bell’s tacos. The organizers asked restaurants to pay just one penny more per pound for tomatoes. After a four-year effort, Taco Bell agreed. But the tomato industry fought back, threatening to fine $100,000 against any grower that accepted the penny-a-pound increase.
And now it’s been years since the Truth Tours, and again, farmworker organizers are asking for a penny-per-pound increase in wages. That’s it. One more penny. As Barry Estabrook, our current best-known advocate for tomato-industry reform, explains in his new book, Tomatoland, for Florida farmworkers, the penny makes the difference between $50 a day and $80 a day, “the difference between a wage that doesn’t allow you to properly feed or shelter your family and a livable, albeit paltry, income.” (Neither wage, of course, comes with overtime, benefits, or sick leave.)
Not all customers of the tomato growers have agreed to pay this extra penny. Trader Joe’s is currently under fire for not signing the labor agreement and even posting an explanation about why. Both Mark Bittman and Estabrook have argued that if McDonald’s and Burger King can sign, TJ’s can, too.
Food Justice authors Gottlieb and Joshi believe that if consumers cultivate a sense of “food justice,” we’ll be able to transform the whole food system and eradicate the brutality behind the abundance in our grocery stores. A sense of food justice will change the food system for the betterment of everyone involved, just like social justice changed America’s racial landscape in the 1950s and 1960s.
As Gottlieb and Joshi define it, the food system is “the entire set of activities and relationships that make up the various food pathways from seed to table and influence the ‘how and why and what we eat.’” Therefore, food justice is about “ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly.”
So what’s the average consumer to do? We want to love our food. We want to be satiated. In addition to reading labels, keeping an eye out for trans fat and gluten, calculating calories and miles traveled, comparing organic prices to conventional, we also need to think about the humans behind our food. Is it enough to eat at Subway but “hold the tomato” on that sandwich?
I come back to Michael Pollan’s insight that what’s good for humans is good for the planet. Maybe that’s true for labor practices as well. Maybe if we don’t eat out-of-season tomatoes, we’ve solved the problem. If everyone quit buying tomatoes, if all consumers said no to any tomato but those from our backyards and local small farmers, wouldn’t the Florida workers suffer even more without any work at all? No, of course not. The companies buying these tomatoes would not want to lose money, and at the first sign of loss in earnings, change for farmworkers would be in place.
Everyone on the food-justice panel at Portland State University agreed that any step consumers make toward more humane eating would be good. Any awareness at all would help. Even the farmworkers visiting from Florida nodded their heads in agreement. Their plight is so invisible that any awareness helps.
Fortunately, according to one of the audience members at the panel discussion, a label is being designed and tested in Oregon called “domestic fair trade.” Similar to fair-trade labels, this label would confirm that your food had been grown under ethical and humane conditions.
The morning after staring at those stark images of farmworkers living in unforgivable conditions, I strolled into the kitchen and wondered what to eat. I didn’t wonder what in my kitchen was produced humanely, what was local, or even what was organic. I wondered what would be convenient and tasty.
The key to food justice, at least from the consumer’s end, is not in the kitchen; it’s at the grocery stores and farmers’ markets. If we make conscientious choices there, choices good for our bodies and souls, choices good for the people behind the food we eat, we can stand in the kitchen and ask what’s convenient and tasty, and feel at ease with what’s on our shelves, in our refrigerators, and filling our bellies.
Trista Cornelius teaches writing and literature at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. When she’s not reading and writing about food, she’s busy eating it, growing it, and cooking it.
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