Whether you’re sitting down to a Tofurky loaf or a bacon-swaddled Turducken this Thanksgiving, now’s a good time to show some gratitude to the country’s food workers and food justice activists who are fighting to keep communities whole while they keep the country fed.
People of color are most likely to live in poor neighborhoods classified as food deserts, where healthful, affordable food is too far out of people’s reach. At every step of the food chain, from farming and processing to distribution and service, there’s a significant wage gap between people of color and white workers. And in all of these spheres, it’s people of color and immigrants who are most likely to work for the lowest wages in the harshest conditions.
It’s against this backdrop that food workers, immigrant rights activists and local communities have been spurred to fight for safe working conditions for workers and sustainable and community-driven pathways to healthy food access. The resistance is as varied as it is ferocious. Here now, a roundup of some vibrant local projects, a few of 2011’s policy wins, and live campaigns in the ongoing fight for just and humane food access and workers rights. As folks dig in to their Thanksgiving meals this year, take a moment to remember to folks who make our dinner possible.
California’s S.B. 126: After an initial crushing veto this summer, California Gov. Jerry Brown came back around this fall with a compromise bill, S.B. 126 to strengthen the organizing rights of farmworkers in the state. The landmark law, signed in October, gives farmworkers more rights to challenge growers in labor disputes. A key provision allows the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify a union when it can determine that employer misconduct threw an election’s results.
Brown produced his compromise package with California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in September, midway through a 167-mile march that 5,000 farmworkers and supporters walked from the farms of Central Valley to the state capitol to demand the governor protect farmworker rights. United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez hailed the law as “the biggest step forward yet in the cause of fair treatment for farm workers.”
Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Network: Vermont, thanks in part to the organizing of the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Network, is celebrating its new Anti-Bias Policing Policy, unveiled by Gov. Peter Shumlin just weeks ago, which ensures that local and state law enforcement make public safety, and not immigration enforcement, their first priority. The policy bars police from questioning someone for the sole purpose of inquiring about their immigration status, and forbids a criminal investigation from being initiated solely on the suspicion that a suspect might be undocumented.
The organization fought for the policy after a member farmworker named Danilo Lopez and his cousin Antonio who both work on local farms were asked for their immigration papers when a state trooper stopped the car they were riding in on their way to work.
“The reality is that what happened to me and Antonio and what happened up on Chris Wagner’s farm in Franklin County, who was was handcuffed and had his employees deported after a 911 call, shouldn’t have happened,” said Lopez, adding that he was “hopeful” about the new policy.
Viet Village Urban Farm in New Orleans East: The Katrina recovery story from the Gulf Coast is as much about renewal as it is about survival. For the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, recovery included the expansion of what was a family-based community farming tradition and weekly market into the now-vibrant collective community urban farm, called the Viet Village Urban Farm. The Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation acquired 20 acres of property in 2007 to formalize the whole thing. The farm, which includes small family plots and larger commercial plots, also has space for livestock like chicken and goats.
“We’re leveraging the heritage of the Vietnamese seniors here who have actually been growing a lot of microgreens, a lot of the herbs, a lot of the fresh vegetables in their own backyards,” said James Bui, a special projects manager with the MQVN CDC.
The project was awarded an Excellence Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2008, in part for the organic farming practices, like integrated pest management, cover cropping and composting that were designed into the space.
Urban farmers persevere in California: In its heyday, the South Central Farm in South Central Los Angeles was considered one of the largest urban farms in the country. Community members grew chayote, chamomile, avocadoes, sugarcane, a veritable rainbow of bean varieties. But when a developer and the city organized to kick out the community who’d been cultivating the 14 acres, finally winning in 2006, a chapter of the farm’s storied history closed, and another began.
Last summer, farmers committed to feeding their community flipped the switch on new property up in Bakersfield, where they’d leased new land to begin growing again. The worker and farmer-owned co-op now operates on 85 acres of donated, unused land in Buttonwillow, California, and serves both L.A. and Bakersfield with CSA boxes and weekly stands at local farmers markets.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers: And we’re giving our last round of thanks to folks leading the ongoing fight for justice and fair compensation for farmworkers, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Their latest campaign, taking on Trader Joe’s and Publix supermarkets, urges these grocery giants to take seriously the rights of the workers who pick the produce they sell in their stores. From Oakland to Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, California, folks have been turning out to demand a penny more per pound of tomatoes that farmworkers pick. Currently, farmworkers make just 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket they pick.