When I tell people about my research about farmworker health in the 21st century, some respond in disbelief (that is, until they see it for themselves). Instead of asking, “what can be done?” or “How can we support farmworkers?” the number one question I receive from public audiences after presenting my work is: Do you eat strawberries? The focus here is on strawberries because my research took place in California’s Central Coast, a strawberry empire.

Strawberries are known amongst many farmworkers as “fruit of the devil” (la fruta del diablo). In Greece, following the deadly shooting of 28 Bangladeshi farmworkers by a foreman, an activist tumblr page dedicated to the cause was entitled “Blood Strawberries.” Strawberries have these reputations amongst workers since harvesting them requires one to be stooped over for long periods of time (try it, and see how your back feels after an hour… even 15 minutes), and workers often face threats when they try and protest working and living conditions. They are routinely told: “If you don’t like it, leave!” At worst, they could be raped or shot.

More TBR 6
1. Som Castellano’s intro to TBR 6
2. Constance on economic concentration in ag
3. Deemer on social class and animal welfare
4. Saxton on farmworker injustice and health
5. Meiretto on immigration policy and food security
6. Wuerzer, Fry & Anderson on food access in Ada County
7.  Bruce on producing food for alternative food networks
8. Som Castellano on gender inequality in the local food movement

In addition, 45 pesticide residues, many with known carcinogenic, neurotoxic and hormone disrupting properties, have been found on strawberries by USDA researchers. This does not even begin to address the impacts that the tens of thousands of pounds of pesticides applied in fields near where farmworkers labor, live and send their children to school have on farmworker health.

All of this information contrasts starkly with grower-shipper representations of strawberries as creating good jobs and economic growth in California and elsewhere, and creating delightful culinary experiences for consumers. It also contrasts with the strawberry’s cultural associations with peace and love (cue the Beatles), sweetness, innocence, sexiness, cosmopolitanism, health and nostalgic, pick-your-own summer outings to farm stands or wild berry patches.

FOOD NORMS AND TABOOS

Cultural norms and taboos have shaped eating patterns for millennia, indicating that people have been concerned about what, how and why they eat certain things, at certain times, in certain places, with certain rules. Eating is by no means a purely biological function. It is cultural, but it is also true that cultures and norms and taboos change over time.

Some food taboos are very explicit. The long-lived traditions of Jewish kosher or Muslim halal practices for processing meat and combining or avoiding certain foods and beverages is one example. Another more recent food taboo involves the burgeoning growth of organic food sales as a result of growing public awareness about the toxic pesticides and additives used by industrial food producers and processors.

Photo montage from the author.

Courtesy of Dvera Saxton
Strawberry selfies from harvesters.

On the other end of the commodity chain, however, exposure to these substances layers with socially and physically brutal workplace conditions, substandard housing, poverty wages and little to no access to decent and in some cases culturally competent health care. Many consumers at the fork-end of consumption are very concerned about how what they put into, on, or around their bodies affects their health. How can we stretch or channel those concerns, frustrations and fear to be inclusive of farmworkers’ lives and wellbeing?

LABOR TO PLATE MOVEMENTS

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, led by Filipino, Mexicano/a and Chicano/a farmworkers and labor leaders and non-farm-working allies. The accompanying United Farmworkers Union Grape Boycott convinced tens of millions of North Americans to stop buying and eating California-grown grapes and lettuce and drinking beverages including Gallo Wines. People also picketed outside retail stores that sold these products, such as Safeway.

Wins for the United Farmworkers Union included union contracts from certain growers, collective bargaining rights, health clinics and insurance and retirement plans (albeit riddled with funding and management problems), increased wages and the prohibition of certain kinds of pesticides like DDT on farms that employed unionized workers.

However, many of those victories, once bolstered by politically strategic food taboos, have been short-lived. In many ways, the quality of life for farmworkers in the U.S. has deteriorated rather than improved with time, with a lack of political will, with changing landscapes of immigration and farm hiring practices, with the increased lobbying power of the agricultural and chemical industries, with a big shift in the UFW from labor organizing to courting policy makers, among other things.

In California, additional laws and protections purportedly give farmworkers laboring in the state some of the most progressive protection in the country. Such measures include workers’ compensation insurance coverage for all farmworkers (including the undocumented), a state agency dedicated to providing an additional tier of regulation over toxic pesticides, and newly developed rules mandating that farm labor supervisors provide adequate water and shade breaks.

However, laws have loopholes and are shaped and influenced by industry. Laws may be selectively enforced, not enforced at all, or enforced based on highly individualized interpretations of the law. For example, right now, several groups are suing the EPA for failing to follow through on its legal obligation to investigate and resolve cases of environmental discrimination where people of color are disproportionately exposed to industrial toxic pollution and contaminants in the air, soil and water, which can lead to serious health problems.

Undocumented farmworkers are routinely threatened with deportation or firings by their employers if they complain about labor violations or workplace threats to their health and wellbeing, be it concerns with pesticide exposure or reporting a sexual assault. Farmworkers who work for farm labor contractors may also have their wages stolen when their employer makes inflated paycheck deductions for room and board.

Farmworkers suffer in these ways even if they know their rights. The vulnerability of being undocumented often layers with the emotional and social effects of being threatened and rendered invisible. Many farmworkers have faced violence in their home countries as well. The majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented, and many are monolingual speakers of Spanish or one of many indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America.

In Florida, reports of farmworkers literally being chained to the walls in substandard trailer homes instigated public outrage and a massive and highly successful 21st century social movement, namely involving picketing and boycotting retail chains that refused to pay growers a premium that would have provided farmworkers a penny more per pound.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student Farmworker Alliance have active boycotts running against the fast food chain Wendy’s and the grocery firm Publix, both of which have yet to sign the Fair Food Agreement.

In Washington state, and in Mexico, farmworkers and allies are asking us to boycott Driscoll’s, which purchases from BerryMex, and Haagen Dazs, which purchases berries from Sakuma Brothers and other growers, due to a long legacy of overlooking severe working and living conditions, racism directed at indigenous farmworkers, hiring young children and condoning rape culture in the fields.

BERRY PICKER EXPLOITATION AROUND THE GLOBE

We tend to attribute poor working conditions, exploitation, slavery, starvation and the like to places far away from the U.S. But when I read about Bangladeshi farmworkers harvesting strawberries in Greece, Palestinian farmworkers laboring across the Green Line in Israel or Gazan farmers letting their berries rot due to trade restrictions and blockades, or indigenous emigrant farmworkers who come to northern Mexico to harvest berries and other crops for the U.S. market, I inevitably think about the farmworkers I know in California. How can we stomach this human sacrifice in the name of “feeding the world?”

It is a complicated, personal and emotional question: Do I eat strawberries, knowing what I know? And given that at present time, many farmworkers and their allies are asking us to take up boycotting again, across several products and stores?

The adage “You are what you eat” has become common sense, especially when applied to the idea that what we put into our bodies shapes our health. It has encouraged some to abstain from foods deemed bad or taboo on account of their known or potential health harming properties. This has to apply to the farmworkers who harvest and pack what we eat, too.

For a time, participating in produce or brand boycotts, letter writing campaigns, or joining farmworkers on the picket lines was a way of demonstrating solidarity with those who harvest the foods we eat — whether we’re on some sort of trendy diet plan or have the majority of our meals from the fast food window. These are still important strategies, but they cannot be the only ones.

We are more than what we eat. We are more than what we consume. Few diet or self-help books offer advice on how to work (and not just eat) our way to a healthier, more equitable and socially just world. When I eat strawberries, and other fresh foods, I think about the people I have met over the course of my work. I make efforts to engage meaningfully in their lives. I am often gifted strawberries, figs, raspberries and other bounties of the harvest, and it is an honor to know the people who grow the food I eat, and to receive their appreciation and reciprocity for the work I do.

To change how the food system works (and does not work), we have to change more than our diets. We have to work on our relationships with one another. We have to listen to and privilege the perspectives and experiences of farmworkers and other members of society’s vulnerable classes, and think critically about corporate claims of social and ecological responsibility. We have to challenge one another and reject stigmas, stereotypes and misinformation about the roles and contributions of immigrant workers and their children in the U.S. And we have to act in mass to create cultural shifts that make it taboo to eat and produce foods that are produced with great human and ecological sacrifices.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • jane_weed

    Excellent commemoration of the the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, Dr. Saxton. Rich food for thought.