Labor Across the Food System

by Alex Galimberti

When you go out with your friends to eat at a restaurant, do you think about the people who cooked your food? Cleaned your dishes? Set your table? When you buy ingredients at the store, do you think about the people who harvested your vegetables? Or about the person who safely packaged it for travel? Delivered it to your city? What about the cashier at your local store? When you cook a piece of animal protein, do you think about the person who slaughtered it? Fished it? Butchered it?

What do you know about the multiple hands that touched your food? Are the people who bring food to your plate well paid? Do they receive any benefits? Are they forced to go to work when they are sick? Are they oppressed? Abused? Raped? Displaced from their countries? Enslaved?

All of these questions are too big to be ignored by the food movement. They are too big to be ignored by food studies. This is the reason why on February 3 and 4, a group of researchers, professors, students, and activists, gathered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for a day-long conference entitled Labor Across the Food the System.

The conference started with a keynote lecture by California historian Frank Bardacke who laid the tone for the conference by giving a compelling account of his experience as a farm worker in the Salinas Valley during the seventies. His vivid description of struggling to learn the complex craft of working the fields as a lechuguero (lettuce picker) and an apiero (celery picker) emphasized the historical undervalue given to the “keenness of the eye and cunning of the hand” required to work with the uneven and unpredictable nature of a living vegetable. Bardacke concluded by pointing that the problems with our agricultural system will not be fixed until the industry acknowledges that inexperienced and unskilled workers cannot maintain productivity and profitability. An example that proves his point is the fact that the state of Georgia lost several crops last year after strict anti-immigrant laws caused an exodus of skilled farm workers.

Screen shot from the opening remarks by Steve McKay from the Center for Labor Studies, UCSC

After such a poignant opening to the conference the following four panels that took place all day on Saturday showed specific examples of struggles and successes to achieve better work conditions throughout the food system. Noteworthy speakers included Lucas Benitez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Mónica Ramírez from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Deborah Barndt from York University, Carolina Bank Muñoz from the Department of Sociology at Brooklyn College CUNY, Saru Jayaraman co-director of The Restaurant Opportunities Center United. These and all of the other speakers and organizations present at this conference are valuable sources for any Gastronomy student, especially if you are taking Dr. Counihan’s Food Activism or Dr. Messer’s Food Policy classes. Every panel was perfectly tied together and if anybody wants more details I can happily share notes.

The speaker for the wrap-up lecture was Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy. His talk tried to break down the myth that the global food system is ‘broken’: regardless of the global food crises of 2008 and 2011 the major food corporations continue to report record food profits every year. This means that the system works perfectly fine to protect the interests of the corporate industrial food complex. Holt-Giménez observes that the food movement is stuck in a bubble; it ignores other movements, mainly the labor movement and social justice movements. His recently edited book Food Movements Unite! shows the idea that the diversity of different social movements should be used as a weapon to bring systematic change. This change must come through the re-politization of social movements. This call to action resonates with the previous speakers who emphasized the need to bridge the gap between academic research and activism.

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