In order to stay alive, humans have certain daily needs. Eating is one of them. In order to eat, you need food. In order to get food, you need to grow it, find it, purchase it, steal it or be given it from someone or somewhere. Among the economically privileged, there exist many possible gradients for involving oneself in the process of growing, harvesting, and preparing the food one chooses to consume. Many folks choose the easiest option: go to the grocery store, go through a check-out line, and leave with a bag full of essential body fuel. The experience you have when shopping in a grocery store is relatively easy and simple, but it is in no way representative of the full process that food takes farm and factory to your hungry mouth. Everyday, millions of calories are consumed by people all over the world, and millions of people labor for low wages doing farm work for little or no respect, in order to supply the Haggens and Fred Meyers with their abundantly stacked shelves.
In addition to the labels of delicious, nutritious, fun, sensual, comforting, and necessary for survival, food is extremely political. In many parts of the world, it is normal for a person’s daily life to involve food harvesting and production, however in rich, developed countries, many people are extremely detached from the sacred acts of growing, harvesting and preparing their food. When faced with busy lives, and a culture that devalues connection to the earth, many people opt for convenience and never have to think about where their food comes from or who may be exploited in the process it takes to reach you.
The economics and politics of the agricultural industry might be a whole lot simpler if the food we buy in grocery stores simply generated and grew itself right on the shelves, but, in reality, every single bite you eat came from somewhere, and passed through many different hands and lives to get to your mouth.
Farm workers form the backbone of the agricultural industry, and in many cases, these workers are immigrants or migrants. It is by their hands that the fruits, vegetables and grains are harvested, and the livestock, eggs and poultry are slaughtered and made ready for sale. We are dependent on these laborers for our very survival, yet it is a rare day when their importance in the cycle of food production and consumption is actually recognized; almost never is their work given appropriate respect.
Because of the general lack of respect and understanding of farm worker lives, experiences, and importance in our society, they are often faced with health issues due to pesticide use, inadequate housing, and lack of health care coverage, to name a few. The conditions faced by many farm workers are in need of change, and large-scale respect and understanding of their lives and experiences are necessary if that change is to really take hold.
If you’re still not convinced that farm worker rights and the politics of the food industry deserve a place in your mind and heart, give this thought a whirl: without the work of farm laborers, your “simple and convenient” shopping experience at your local grocery store would be impossible, because there would be nothing on the shelves to buy.
The Pacific Northwest is blessed with a yearlong growing season, and Whatcom County, which the USDA credits with over 1,200 farms utilizing over 103,000 acres of farmland, is an agricultural hotspot. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the year 2000 found 7,000 migrant farm workers residing in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. Around harvest seasons for local crops like tulips and raspberries, that number almost doubles as farm worker come from other parts of the state and region to work.
In honor of local farm workers, and with the intention to cross-pollinate between the Western community and the farm worker communities in the area, the Social Issues Resource Center is holding its second annual event, “Viva La Campesina,” strategically timed during Women of Color week. David Cahn, co-coordinator of the SIRC, said the event is about honoring the local farm workers who are so frequently taken for granted by many people at Western, and in American consumer culture at large. “[Farm workers] contribute so much to our community and economy, but they’re so often an invisible population. This is an opportunity for them to come to Western and share their experiences,” he said.
Four farm workers will share their experiences of working in the fields, and talk about their lives. Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the local, women led, grassroots organization Community to Community, will be moderating the discussion. C2C works to promote sustainable agriculture and farm worker health and advocacy by focusing on community building, and the dynamic social, political, economic and cultural forces that dictate who gets to eat, what different people get to eat, and the path food takes from the farm to the table. These issues fall under the heading of food justice, and, since food is so central to our very existence, affect every single person on a literal life or death level.
As the event is being held as part of Women of Color Week, it will focus on women farm workers. “Looking at their experiences, you can really understand so much of what’s ignored. They are the most silenced,” said Cahn. As feminist theory has advocated for years, the best way to really understand a complex issue is to look to the oppressed populations who are most adversely affected by the needs of dominant society and culture. It is the experience of the underdog that can really teach you the reality behind the jargon and habitual assumptions we use to justify and describe “normal” life.
By attending this event, Cahn said “students will get a deeper appreciation and understanding of some of the biggest issues in Whatcom County. This intersects issues of race, class, gender, migrant and immigrant rights… it all comes together. The women on the panel are going to have a lot of perspective. Students can gain a better understanding of what part of the country we’re living in.”
He said the event will focus on what it’s like working in the fields, and how families and communities are affected by the agricultural and farm industries.
“Agriculture depends entirely on [migrant labor]. The food you get at Haggen doesn’t come from nowhere– there’s a whole industry behind it and people are getting exploited everyday. This is an industry that runs on exploiting our community’s labor,” said Cahn.
How should we go about changing these systems that are actively exploitative, and undermine our community’s strength and resilience? “When farm workers themselves, along with allies, stand up and say this situation can’t go on like it is now, that is when things will change,” said Cahn.
So get yourself to this awesome event and get hungry for the politics of food production and consumption! “Viva La Campesina” will take place on Tuesday, February 28, from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in VU 565.