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Food

Heritage of Healing: Ecology of Hope

By Kelly Curry

It’s a bright sunny Sunday and I’m sitting in my homeboy’s restaurant drinking a cup of his rich, black coffee. With ceiling fans whirling overhead, the last customer, of the last rush, hustles out the door. He nods goodbye to him and then turns to me, “What are you doing today?”

I tell him I’m working on a series of interviews with guys who have recently been released from prison and are now working the land and growing food for the community.

“What a joke.” He says, grabbing the remote and pointing it towards the wide flat screen overhead, “Those guys don’t stand a chance,” he mashes the mute button, “why would anybody hire a ex-con when they can have a guy with no record, never did anything and works hard? You know what a thief does? They steal...you know what a junkie does? They use. End of story.”

The Lie of Growth and the Power of the Small— Vandana Shiva and Gopal Dayaneni

"The growing “bio-economy”   is based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” —Gopal Dayaneni

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Dr. Vandana Shiva, the internationally known author, scientist and advocate for small farmers and agroecology, spoke with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California in September 2013. This conversation was part of a series of conversations hosted by the group synbiowatch.org that expose the growing “bio-economy,” which Dayaneni calls “an economy based on control, manipulation and commodification of life… things like microbial factories that are producing industrial food products, that will make fuels and pharmaceuticals, seeds and now even species.” U.C. Berkeley, The Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and the private corporations that are subsidized by it, are central to this developing bio-economy. The federal government and multinational corporations see the bioeconomy as a new frontier to be conquered.

Occupying the Future, Starting at the Roots

Occupied Urban Farmland in the Bay Area Highlights Privatization of Public
Universities and Corporatization of Public Trust

On Earth Day—April 22, 2012—about 200 people, accompanied by children in strollers, dogs, rabbits, chickens, and carrying hundreds of pounds of compost and at least 10,000 seedlings entered a 14-acre piece of land containing the  last Class I agricultural soil in the East Bay. Located on the Albany-Berkeley border in the Bay Area, the plot is owned by the University of California Berkeley. By the end of the day, they had weeded, tilled, and successfully cultivated about an acre of the land. By May 14, when 100 University of California riot police surrounded the tract and began arresting the farmers, Occupy the Farm had cultivated around two acres of the plot known as the Gill Tract.

The Occupy farmers have laid out footpaths around cultivated plots, created wildlife corridors, riparian zones, and protected areas for native grasses and a wild turkey nest, and set up a library and a kitchen. They have planted thousands of seedlings of corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, broccoli, herbs, and strawberries, including heirloom varieties from a local seed bank. Other plots have been reserved for agro-ecological research. There’s also a permaculture garden for kids on the other side of a gazebo of woven branches where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.

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Restaurants and Race

Discrimination and Disparity in the Food Service Sector

Walk into any fine-dining restaurant in an American urban center and you will observe: white workers serving and bartending; workers of color clearing tables, preparing food, and washing dishes.

Like the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South, the restaurant industry has reserved the best jobs in the front for whites, while workers of color are relegated to the back (unless they are bussing tables in the front). Both restaurant workers and employers admit that this stark divide along color lines is commonly accepted industry practice based on notions of skills, table manners, language ability, and appearance. Thanks to a legal framework that demands proof of discriminatory intent, this obvious form of segregation has existed mostly unchallenged until recently.

With over 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer—just behind retail—and the largest part of the nation’s food system. The industry continues to grow rapidly, even as other sectors decline during the current economic crisis, and is considered a gateway of opportunity for immigrants and low-wage workers of color from all over the world. However, research shows that in the country’s largest urban areas, only about 20 percent of all restaurant industry jobs provide living wages and benefits. (There are some instances of waiters and bartenders at fine-dining places in urban centers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually.)

Food Workers—Wages and Race

Mariano Lucas Domingo traveled north from his home in Guatemala in search of work to support his sick parent. He landed in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the United States, where he found work harvesting tomatoes. He expected to earn about $200 a week.  Then Lucas met two brothers who offered him room and board at their family house, in exchange for a cut of his pay. This didn’t seem like a bad deal to Lucas who had no family or friends nearby, and also because the brothers offered to extend credit even when work was sparse.

Lucas spent the next two-and-a-half years living as a captive with other workers in a truck with no water or electricity.1 The workers were forced to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck and wash with a garden hose in the backyard. The brothers locked them in the truck every night, forced them to work even when they were sick or tired, and took away their paychecks. Lucas and his colleagues finally escaped from the truck one night by punching a hole through the roof.2 The two brothers were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. 

This story, unfortunately, is not unusual among the workers who produce our food.  While Lucas’ experience of being enslaved is certainly a horrific extreme, the 20 million workers employed in the food system earn low wages, work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and are unable to collectively organize to demand rights at work. Half of all workers in the food system earned just $21,692 a year or $11.05 per hour in 2008.3 That is well below what a family needs to make in order to sustain two children, according to the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington.4 In a metropolitan area like San Francisco, a family needs to earn around $26.97 per hour just to meet basic needs. In Cleveland, that figure is $20.21 per hour and in Atlanta, it’s $18.37 per hour. Close to one quarter of all food system workers live at the federally defined poverty threshold—earning less than $21,200 for a family of four—as per data gathered in 2008.5

Undocumented Immigrants Stand up to Chipotle

The hands of Juan Jimenez, an immigrant farm worker. ©1999 David Bacon

In December 2010, 600 workers at the Chipotle fast food chain in Minnesota were fired. Their crime? Working. In the past two years, thousands of others have been fired for the same offense: 2000 women at a sewing factory in Los Angeles, 500 apple pickers in eastern Washington, and several hundred janitors in Minnesota and California, to name just a few instances. Every one of them is a victim of the Obama administration’s “softer” immigration enforcement strategy.

The logic is brutal: Make it impossible for the 12 million undocumented U.S. residents to earn a living and send money to their families, and they will deport themselves. What’s more, their families will not be tempted to join them in the U.S. because they will not get jobs.

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