The ethics of eating

Consider the farmworkers

May 19, 2009

On a recent Saturday, I took a trip out to rural Oregon with about 20 other Slow Food Portland members. We woke early and drove through the dreary morning rain, leaving behind the streets of Portland for the vast agricultural fields of nearby Marion County. We were seeking the origins of our food.

I helped organize the event, which was billed as an opportunity to “Share a Meal With the People Who Feed Us.” The idea was to meet with migrant farmworkers and to learn more about the different places they live: either in housing provided by their employers, or in housing created by a local nonprofit, the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC). FHDC staff agreed to take us on a tour of the farms and of their development in Woodburn, after which we would share a potluck lunch with the residents there.

Much farmworker housing is hidden from public view.

The day was inspired largely by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, who insists that our food be “Good, Clean, and Fair.” By this he means that our food should be fresh and healthy, it shouldn’t depend on chemicals that destroy the environment, and the people who grow it should be compensated well for their work.

His ethics, I think, are admirable. They are simple and elegant. But they can be quite difficult to put into practice.

Many of us know that the ways in which we typically grow, process, distribute, and consume food in this country are harmful to our health and the environment. As a nation, we are coming to understand that the production and consumption of a “conventional” tomato, for example, means degraded soils, polluted waterways, poisoned air, and toxins in our bodies. Given the state of our health-care system, as well as the threat of global climate change, this conventional tomato affects us in ways that are increasingly difficult to ignore.

It’s no wonder, then, that the “good” and “clean” elements of Petrini’s ethic have become major preoccupations in the American mind. And because of our increased awareness, I think, we’ve already developed some relatively good ways to address our concerns; on the West Coast, at least, it’s easy to find fresh and locally grown organic produce almost any time of year.

The problem is that this doesn’t necessarily account for how “fair” the food is.

Long hours and low pay are the industry standard, even for many organic and small-scale farms. In the worst cases, farmworkers are held against their will and forced to labor as indentured servants — continually paying off debts to their employers — in a system legally defined as slavery. In Florida, for example, a state that one federal prosecutor recently called “ground zero for modern-day slavery,” at least five operations involving more than 1,000 workers have been prosecuted for violation of anti-slavery statutes since 1997.

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It’s unclear how pervasive these conditions are, or where exactly they exist. It is clear, however, that they’re far more common than we’d like to admit. They represent an egregious extreme of abuse, but they are also part of a continuum: the mistreatment of agricultural workers is a deeply entrenched problem in this country, and has been for a long time. In 1972, for example, the average life expectancy for a farmworker was 47 years; in 2008, it was 49.

According to FHDC staff, rates of cancer, asthma, birth defects, and tuberculosis for farmworkers all hover somewhere around 25 percent above national averages. In general, hard work, toxic chemicals, and poor nutrition degrade workers’ immune systems; unsanitary and crowded housing exposes them to disease; and low pay makes decent medical treatment extremely difficult to find. The few laws that prohibit these scenarios are rarely enforced, and the undocumented-immigrant status of many workers prevents them from reporting abuses or advocating for their rights.

A large proportion of migrant laborers live on the borders of the fields where they work, typically paying their employers about $50 per week to stay in run-down shacks and trailers. The statistics on just how many people live this way don’t exist, because the studies haven’t been conducted; as a rule, these farms hide the housing far from view and guard it with private security forces. Entry onto the property is illegal, even for union organizers, unless a worker has given them an explicit invitation to enter. Such invitations are virtually impossible to receive, of course, since it would mean instant dismissal and deportation for whomever made it.

Our tour

The harvest season in Marion County won’t start for another few weeks, so the farms we visited on Saturday were empty; they were also unguarded, however, which gave us the rare opportunity to see housing facilities up close.

Even with a fresh coat of paint on their exteriors, the buildings were obviously dilapidated. Inside, concrete walls were stained with black mold and rust. Bedrooms were crammed with bunk beds, and the mattresses were nothing more than wooden planks or sheets of carpeting. The air was dank and sickly. The floor was smeared with a brown layer of bacterial mud.

A different kind of kitchen.

At both farms we visited, it looked as though someone might’ve made a recent effort to clean. The dirt was smudged, and the stains had been scrubbed. In both cases, however, the years of accumulated grime remained. Set against a bright blue-and-white sky, nestled near a blossoming field of tulips, these conditions seemed particularly horrendous.

Fire extinguishers were mounted in every doorway at the first farm we saw, and a sign was posted in the kitchen at the second, imploring workers to clean up after themselves — as though safety and sanitation were genuine concerns.

Who built these hovels, and how could they charge rent to the people who live here? Is it simply a matter of farmers trying to meet the bottom line? Are the economics of agriculture really so dire?

And what do these conditions say about us, the people who pay money to support them? What does it mean that we feed ourselves with food grown from filth and suffering?

The people who live here

On Saturday, we weren’t able to meet anyone currently living on the farms, but we did meet many who had lived on farms like these recently, or whose parents had.

During lunch at the FHDC development, which is called Nuevo Amanecer, or “New Dawn,” I spoke with a woman who had moved from a farm in eastern Oregon, where she had shared a single trailer with 10 other workers. “Oh, and with their children,” she added as an afterthought, as though it hardly made a difference. “There must have been four or five children, too.”

What could life possibly be like for 15 or 16 people living inside one trailer?

And then, because we were eating, I found myself wondering about the people who had grown the vegetables on my plate. What were their lives like? What hardships did they endure?

I asked the woman, who prefers to go unnamed, whether she ever thought about such things while she ate. “I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know where my food comes from. What can I do about it? I’ve got to eat something.”

The things I encountered on Saturday were hard and ugly; they were difficult to understand. They were so distant from my daily experience that I’ve had to fight the impulse to forget, or even to disbelieve what I saw. I continually have to remind myself, as another FHDC resident explained to me, “Es muy duro, pero es una realidad.” It’s very hard, but it’s a reality.

Transforming reality

Before I went to Marion County, my awareness of these problems was abstract; I read about them and was troubled, but only in a vague way, the way that any injustice might prod my conscience. As a consequence, the solutions I sought were similarly vague. I thought of grappling with labor law, immigration reform, NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Farm Bill. Ultimately, however, the prospect of affecting such a mess of legislation was debilitating, and I didn’t do anything at all.

But after visiting Nuevo Amanecer, I’ve become convinced that even relatively small and incremental changes can be enormously significant. The FHDC’s accomplishments in Oregon — like those of the UFW in California, or the CIW in Florida — provide a clear example of a way in which a few dedicated people can make a tangible difference in others’ lives.

The apartments at Nuevo Amanecer are quiet and comfortable. They’re small, but they’re clean, they’re affordable, and they even seem to foster a sense of communal pride among residents. The people who live here are all farmworkers. Most of them are seasonally unemployed, and they all make less than $16,000 annually. If it weren’t for an intricate combination of federal funds and private donations subsidizing rent, these families would be living in the fields.

A kitchen area at Nuevo Amanacer.

Nuevo Amanecer has a community center where teachers offer lessons in computer skills and English; there’s green grass for kids to play on, and a community garden for growing food. The residents I spoke with regularly called their situation a “gift from God,” a “blessing,” and a “relief.” The development provides them with a respite from grinding poverty and all that it entails — illness, fatigue, gang violence, an overwhelming sense of isolation — which can otherwise destroy the fragile ties holding peoples’ lives together.

FHDC has spent almost 15 years establishing its facilities in Woodburn, but even so, there’s far from enough housing available. At present, there’s a waiting list with 250 families on it, and the staff estimates it would take them more than 57 years to meet existing demand. And that’s only in Woodburn.

Clearly, this isn’t a panacea. But it is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, and it’s doing incalculable good for those who can live there. It’s a reason for hope.

The label approach

As hopeful as it is, Nuevo Amanecer does little to address the systemic nature of the problem at hand. As any of the staff there will tell you, it is only one small component of the nationwide efforts that are necessary. Given the historical difficulty of effecting large-scale change on this issue, however, the specifics of such a solution are far from clear. And new strategies seem to be in order.

Can we use what we’ve learned from the efforts to make food “good” and “clean” to also make it “fair”? Could we use a combination of market forces and government regulations like those that created the organic label to develop a “humane” label, perhaps — something like a domestic version of fair trade?

The idea seems promising. The danger, however, is that any standards — like their organic counterparts — would be extremely difficult to enforce, and we’d be creating powerful economic incentives for farmers to violate them.

Moreover, the integrity of the standards — again, like their organic counterparts — would be susceptible to the influence of large corporations, who continually exert pressure on government officials to include as many questionable practices as possible under the “ethical” label.

An Oregon Tilth inspector recently informed me that 23 percent of organic produce was found to have toxic chemical residue on it. He was proud of this statistic, as though it were proof of the efficacy of enforcement. While it is certainly better than the 73 percent found in conventional produce, it’s hardly good enough for my tastes; I told him as much, and he was offended.

“Grow your own,” he said. “Nothing’s perfect.”

Sadly, I think he’s right. Whether the contamination is willful or inadvertent, caused by the spray from neighboring fields, it seems obvious that no scheme of classification and inspection will ever be foolproof.

We don’t feel comfortable leaving minimum-wage regulations or fire codes up to consumer choice, so why should we allow the market to dictate the lives of migrant farmworkers? This is a matter of human rights, and relying solely on a label to effect change would still allow injustice to continue — by sanctioning it, in fact, as “conventional.”

Growing your own

Ultimately, it may be true that the only way to understand where your food comes from, and to feel good about it, is to grow it yourself.

Before you object that such an ideal is impossible to achieve, consider the fact that in 1943 — at the height of our national Victory Garden enthusiasm — almost 20 million Americans were gardening. Collectively, they produced approximately 40 percent of the food consumed in the country at the time. Consider also the communal gardens, the neighborhood kitchens, and the food-storage facilities that cropped up across America. In the past, when we’ve felt the need to do so, we’ve been able to radically transform the ways in which we feed ourselves.

Think back, then, but also think forward; think of the aquaculture schemes and the rooftop gardens being established in cities today. The contemporary possibilities of small-scale urban food production are still waiting to be explored. Our metropolitan landscapes can be remade into fertile ground.

Whatever the promise of such an approach, however, complete self-sufficiency probably isn’t viable for all Americans. And growing your own — while it does allow you to feel virtuous and independent — doesn’t change the living conditions for farmworkers.

Any produce grown on farms might depend upon inhumane treatment, and our silence in this matter — even non-participation — is still a form of complicity. No matter where we shop or what we grow, we should not ignore the importance of comprehensive legislative change, nor places like Nuevo Amanecer.

We need to develop an ethical relationship with our food.

Start by learning where your food comes from. Enable yourself to make it better, cleaner, and fairer, even if it can’t be perfect. Go out to the farms near where you live; try to meet the people who grow your food. Better yet, buy directly from farmers you know, or grow your own and share your bounty with neighbors. Finally, if you feel so inclined, take the time to share your experiences with others.

Eric Haas is a Portland, Oregon, writer interested in food activism.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Rachael Warrington on May 20, 2009 at 6:50 AM PDT

Wow. Great read. This is America and it is so sad that this is happening here. Thank you for having the courage to write about it.

2. by Kathryn H on May 21, 2009 at 3:13 PM PDT

I agree this a very thought provoking piece--thank you for it. The article makes me happy that I have the time and desire to purchase the bulk of our food from small, local family farms. Although, time and desire are nothing without information/education about the problems inherent in our industrialized food system. I would love to see enough information dispersed that we could have a major grassroots push for meaningful change.

3. by TRISTA on May 22, 2009 at 2:54 PM PDT

Thank you for this personal and honest article. I, too, have wanted to sort of ignore the issue of farm labor, and I related to your confession: “the prospect of affecting such a mess of legislation was debilitating, and I didn’t do anything at all.” Your article makes me pay attention again. Thank you.

I also wanted to add that I think you are right about growing our own food. Even when I only had space for one potted tomato and a few basil plants, the time and effort it took to produce a few basil leaves and tomatoes reminded me to value the food in my fridge, not to waste it. Not that I ever wasted food intentionally, but food can seem so abundant and endless when you’re not invovled in growing it that some wilted lettuce tossed in the compost bin doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

It takes a lot of smarts, hard work, and dedication to grow food. All the more reason to take more pleasure in and more responsibility for our food.

4. by Arthur Stamoulis on May 22, 2009 at 3:52 PM PDT

Thanks for this piece. I support the idea of growing your own food -- but I don’t think it is a solution to the problems posed here. Even full-time farmers buy a lot of what they eat.

Legislative campaigns and other fights for institutional change are daunting, but they are absolutely necessary. If you care about the working conditions of the people who pick your food, look into supporting bills like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it considerably easier for farm workers to organize unions and negotiate contracts.

You don’t have to run the campaign yourself -- send an email, make a phone call, join a picket line a couple times a year. That alone would make a world of difference.

5. by anonymous on May 22, 2009 at 9:49 PM PDT


Please immediately call OSHA and BOLI and report the two farms you visited. These are obviously not legal housing. I am a farmer who has OSHA registered and Federally inspected and approved housing. Any agricultural employer who provides housing for five or more workers must register and be inspected by both agencies. If there are under five employers they do not need to register as a camp BUT still must meet housing and sanitation standards through inspection. Both agencies are very quick to respond. This really gives the majority of us who do care about our employees a bad name. As far as pay, buying local and paying more is the first step. Most of the farmers I know make the same or little more per hour as the employees. Unfortunately food prices in our country have been keep artificially low for many years. Thanks!

6. by cafemama on May 23, 2009 at 3:34 PM PDT

I agree with other commenters: this article was timely and thought-provoking. (and I used it as more reason why we shouldn’t buy orange juice and other Florida farm products.) I too think urban agriculture and supporting small farmers whose ethical standards prevent them from employing such inhumane labor practices is a big part of the answer. it’s not all grow-your-own, but a combination.

for legislative change, it’s all about raising awareness, and showing others photographs like the ones you included here. we need more housing like that at Nuevo Amanecer -- a lot more -- and more scrutiny of labor practices both here and abroad. that Americans are buying fair-trade coffee and chocolate, but boxes of tangelos picked by slaves stateside, is deplorable; and I shudder to think I’ve personally purchased hundreds, or thousands, of dollars of the fruit of exploited workers.

7. by anonymous on May 24, 2009 at 8:22 AM PDT

Hi All,

Eric here. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it.

Anonymous and Arthur: I’m in the process of trying to work with FHDC to see if there are ways that I and other interested people can help them. I haven’t called OSHA or BOLI yet, because FHDC seems to be dealing with the farmers in the area, and they’ve already made complaints..but increased pressure would certainly be helpful -- I’ll get in touch with FHDC and see whether they could provide us with a list of particularly egregious farms.

I don’t think farmers deserve all the blame for the conditions I saw, or even for some of the far worse ones that I haven’t seen.
I think “blame” is only useful insofar as it helps us work towards solutions, which is the most important thing.

On that note, is anyone interested in working to create some kind of Humane label in the Portland area?

8. by anonymous on May 24, 2009 at 12:07 PM PDT

If the camps are still in that condition, then sorry I do not believe FHDC has made any complaints. Nor are they working with the farm if it is still in that condition.

Again, please call OSHA and Boli on the farms YOU SAW. As far as a list of “particularly egregious farms” you have not personally seen to call about makes me feel a little uncomfortable and witch hunt like to me. Your idea of working toward solutions seem far better to me.

Also I think it is awesome that your are working with FHDC and thinking of ways to address the issue. As you said, it is a vicious cycle deeply rooted in our food system.

Again Eric thanks! Now I really need to get back to Farming!

9. by SpinachTiger on Jun 9, 2009 at 7:03 AM PDT

This is eye opening and will require education and solutions.I read this last night before I went to bed and it was on my mind all night. These things disturb me. I don’t want to eat food with blood on my hands. That’s how I see it.

It’s not just a matter of heart, but economics. We are trained to look for the lowest price and point fingers when there is a noticeable difference in produce. Farmer’s markets can be expensive. Mine is, but I understand why and I"m willing to support them. I am just starting this week to include various farmers/artisans on my blog. I will be sure to take an opportunity to drive the point home about the morality issues in farming. It’s going to take a grass roots effort that starts at home.

I am so grateful to live in a country where we are not hungry, we have choices, and our choices can decide how things are produced and what is produced. But between the seed and the purchase there is a whole lot that needs changed. The first change is our mentality. We have to take responsibility individually for what goes on behind the scenes of our choices. But, most people don’t think this way. We must possess and exercise a shopping code of ethics. Keep up the good work.

I will link your article where appropriate to my site.

10. by anonymous on Dec 2, 2012 at 3:38 PM PST

Here the farmer’s market is actually cheaper. I tried growing my own and I got squat out of it, I’m better off buying inorganic from local farmers. I will try to get organic non-GMO for grains and beans from a place like BreadBeckers or Bob’s Red Mill.
I live in a rural area, the farmers usually don’t usually provide housing to migrant workers. They and poor white’s and poor blacks live in often old run down trailers in the same neighborhoods. Its called The Sand Ridge. Its better than what farmer use to expect free blacks to rent in days gone by, but not by much.
Poverty is poverty. Poor people will often trash anything nice they are given. Look at what often happens with Government Housing. Fact is all the trailers on the Ridge were nice once and some have been treated worse than others. Landlord’s simply can’t run fix everything the people break. They can’t provide washers and dryers to people who turn around and sell every appliance they get their hands on and leave town for awhile. They had a place that was okay when it was new, they treated the place really bad out of exhaustion, bitterness, and no small amount of self-loathing. It must be how they want to live or it would look clean and people would not have peed on the mattresses and ruined them. You can’t force people who are paid low and treated bad to think they need to clean because they deserve a better way of life than squalor. If the poor would stop wasting income on drugs, booze, they could eat better. If the poor were all nice clean people, The Projects would be a fine place to live. No one can fix you or help you if you don’t want it too. Some is the fault of bad landlords, some is the fault of bad tenants. Just saying, if you hand ten of those migrant workers the keys to a brand new house and you visit in a year I’m betting you’d be shocked by how little they took care of them. Pretty to think they would rise to the occasion and buy a mop and broom for themselves, and some will. Problem is that it is some, not all, and not often enough is it most either.

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