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From Farm to Fast Food: The Need for a Backstory
Erica Barnett, 11 Dec 07

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If you're reading this blog, you're probably aware of the need to think about where your food comes from. You may consume food that's exclusively or primarily organic; you may even stick to the 100-mile diet, whose adherents consume only food produced within a 100-mile radius of where they live. But you may not have considered, at least not recently, the manner in which your food was produced--that is, who harvested it, under what conditions they did so, and what sort of pay they received for their labor.

Migrant workers, who harvest the bulk of the crops produced in the United States, are among the most abused and most poorly renumerated workers in the country. On average, they make around $10,000 a year--less than half the US poverty line for a family of four. And even that number is probably high--including, as it does, the salaries of supervisors and other managerial staff. Tomato pickers in Florida, for example, receive between 40 and 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket they collect. Although a 2007 agreement between farm workers and McDonald's ensured workers that they would earn a penny a pound more for tomatoes picked for the burger behemoth (similar to a 2005 agreement with fast-food giant Taco Bell), that agreement never went into effect; pressure from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an industry group, prompted Burger King to refuse to implement a penny-per-pound increase of its own, and Taco Bell and McDonald's followed suit, leaving wages stagnant at levels that have scarcely budged in the last three decades. The tomato growers' organization has even threatened a fine of $100,000 against any grower who accepts an additional penny a pound for migrant wages, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser reported recently in the New York Times, and even

claims that such a surcharge would violate “federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.” It has not explained how that extra penny would break those laws; nor has it explained why other surcharges routinely imposed by the growers (for things like higher fuel costs) are perfectly legal.

One problem with redressing the plight of farmworkers is the issue of transparency. Increasingly, it's possible to know, in great detail, the origin story of the things you buy--whether a piece of produce was treated with pesticides or grown with chemical fertilizer; whether the meat you buy was fed on corn or grass; what kind of life the animals you consume lived, and how they werekilled (kosher? cruelty-free? at a feedlot?); and where the food itself originated. Even diamonds, historically an industry linked with massive devastation and human suffering in the nations that produce them, are increasingly a transparent commodity, thanks in large part to the efforts of groups like Global Witness\, which used surveillance of the diamond industry and online networking to pressure diamond companies into changing some, though by no means all, of their exploitative practices.

Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — a highly organized farmworker group based in Immokalee, Fla. — have gone a long way toward improving the lives of migrant workers in Florida and increasing awareness of the harsh working conditions and sorry pay that face such workers (as many as 80 percent of them undocumented immigrants.) The CIW's web site is an invaluable resource for updated information about the campaign to provide better working conditions and pay for Florida's tomato pickers and migrant laborers everywhere. But the real potential for improving conditions for migrant workers in the US and elsewhere has not yet been tapped. What's needed is a backstory--an easily accessible resource enumerating where the tomato on your McDonald's burger, or your Taco Bell burrito grande--came from, accompanied by a certification system to resassure consumers that the products they're consuming helped provide a living wage to the individual farm workers who played such an integral role in bringing them to market. If consumers took the plight of farm workers as seriously as they did, say, the presence of cancer-causing chemicals on their apples, such a certification system might not be far off on the horizon.

Photo via CIW.

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Comments

Improving the conditions of legal migrant workers is one thing, but why ignore that the vast majority of U.S. citizens do NOT want illegal aliens working here - no matter what warm and fuzzy "1984" Newspeak terminology you use to make them seem appealing.

As far as for those who say we "need" illegal workers to provide us food (or other) products, I say let those who "need" these consumerist products go without... and for those who need to consume McDonald's food, well, isn't it time to stop stuffing your face of junk food produced in part by illegal aliens. No one "needs" McDonalds, and only a selfish pig "needs" illegal alien labor.


Posted by: nightliter on 11 Dec 07

Response to nightliter:

I don't believe that this article was making the case that illegal aliens are a crucial part of our economy and we can't get rid of them. From my reading of the article it appears to be more focused on how those migrant workers are treated.

Unfortunately, migrant workers are a reality in this country and until our hapless government takes decisive action on the issue, they will remain a reality. So, while we still have illegal aliens working the jobs that no one wants, isn't treating them fairly the ethical and American thing to do?

There are many reasons to forgo fast food, two very valid ones are to stop supporting the use of illegal aliens and to try and promote fair treatment of them while they are here.


Posted by: Rob W on 12 Dec 07



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