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Food

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

San Francisco Chinatown Restaurant Workers Fight for Fair Employment

Li Shuang Li, 42, had worked at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown for seven years before she discovered that her boss was stealing her tips. At the time, Li was barely making $900 a month to support her 13- and 11-year-old children and was afraid of confronting her boss for fear of losing her job.

So, Li allied with her colleagues and they collectively raised the issue with their employer, whose ill-tempered response was: “If you want to complain, I’ll just fire you!” But the employees threatened to quit en masse if he did not pay them back the tips he owed and he eventually came to a verbal agreement.

Li says she was fortunate to receive her back pay relatively quickly, unlike some other waitresses who were given the run around by the boss until some brought their relatives in to coerce him. Rather than continue working for that employer, Li decided to quit and has been unemployed for three years now.

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The Second Green Revolution

By Clifton Ross

It may seem hard to believe that the process that brought the head of lettuce to your salad—and all the other delicious components of your organic meal, like the baked potato and the grilled free-range chicken breast—are all a major cause of climate change. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “Approximately one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by agriculture and land-use changes, with 18 percent of the overall total coming from livestock alone.”[1] While organic, free-range, or better yet, vegetarian diets are steps in the right direction, the steps are still circumscribed by a system that guarantees climate change, even in its “greenest” sectors.

Part of the problem is the amount of energy (inputs) required by standard agriculture to produce the world’s food: in the United States 7.3 calories of energy go into delivering one calorie of food.[2] From the tractors that break the ground for planting, then return to do the planting and harvesting, to the transport and processing, to the further transport to the supermarket, and all the way to your drive to make the purchase (unless you bicycle and cut a calorie or two off the process), energy is used and carbon produced.

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Urban Food Co-op Tackles Economic Empowerment

The green jobs conversation most often centers on industrialized sectors that require millions of dollars in capital—from high-tech clean energy to biodiesel. However, the world’s basic natural resources—land, water, and farming—are the essential building blocks for combating climate change and can provide immediate avenues to build an equitable green economy. Sustainable agriculture, urban food production, and environmentally sound distribution systems provide opportunity for economic revitalization through true local ownership. Urban planning and policy in the United States should embrace locally-owned sustainable food enterprises as essential to all economic development efforts.

Mandela MarketPlace is a leader in development, application, and assessment of food systems. The organization evolved over the last eight years, first as a project of the Environmental Justice Institute and Tides Center, and then as a nonprofit in 2006 with a mission to strengthen community health, integrity, and identity by providing economic opportunity and empowerment for inner-city Oakland residents and businesses, and local family farms. “We support our community by providing healthy, locally grown produce and educating them about organic and pesticide free food,” says Yuro Chavez, West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE) team member and Mandela Food Cooperative worker-owner.

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Reinventing Food Systems

The entire history of agriculture—humanity’s grandest enterprise—occurred during the last 10,000 years; a mere blink of an eye in geological terms. As hunter-gatherers, we were dependent upon each other in a system that demanded social equity for survival. But by producing surplus food, agriculture opened the door to division of labor and the possibility of socially stratified societies in which farmers lost control of what they produced. As farming shifted from subsistence to commodity production in large parts of the world, gargantuan agribusiness corporations came to dominate a global system in which those who produce the food and work the hardest profit the least.

Humans developed farming in an exceptionally wet, warm, and stable period in Earth’s climate history. All of our current knowledge of seed saving, plant selection, sowing, planting, growing, and harvesting has relied on predictable seasons and weather patterns. How do we cope in an age of climate change? By the end of this century, climate scientists warn, average temperatures could rise by 4° Celsius (9° Farenheit)––a forecast that likely underestimates the impacts of dangerous feedback loops that are not included in most climate models. Weather patterns are predicted to become increasingly volatile with droughts, floods, and temperature extremes within seasons.

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Greening for All

The Right to Access Healthy Food

In a mild late-winter afternoon, fifth-graders at Verde Elementary School in North Richmond squat on soggy ground, poking beans into the dirt with thin sticks. They move on to carrots, marveling at the tiny seeds that get stuck on the palms of their hands. Fava beans, bright yellow and orange calendula, and a whole pharmacy of herbs are flourishing in the garden’s rock-rimmed plots.
Last year Verde Partnership Garden produced close to 1000 pounds of vegetables. The students set up a farmers market in front of the school every two weeks. Parents were so eager to buy that they sent orders in with their children, said garden co-coordinator Bienvenida Mesa. North Richmond, like many depressed communities across the nation, has more than its share of liquor stores, but no stores that sell decent, much less organic, produce.

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Florida Farmworkers Build Unity through Education and Action

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With its streets full of the smells of savory Caribbean and Latin cuisine, its sounds of many languages, and its population of Haitian, Mayan, and Latino peoples, one might mentally place the town of Immokalee in any number of locations, but probably not Florida. English is seldom heard here and Americans rarely seen in this town, which serves as a bedroom community for tens of thousands of migrant workers.

Likewise, the organizing strategies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—the local farm workers’ association—have more in common with the grassroots struggles in Latin America than in the United States. In fact, the Coalition was founded 11 years ago by participants and allies of the campesino movements in Haiti and Chiapas, and the survivors of dictatorships in Guatemala.

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