A New, Fair Food System

Although there seems to be little to no national dialogue about fair labor in the overall American food discussion, Eric Schlosser seems to be one food celebrity who hasn’t forgotten about farm workers. Schlosser, primarily known for co-producing Food Inc. and writing Fast Food Nation, is a leading advocate for fair labor standards and wages in the food industry, including the fast food workers highlighted in Fast Food Nation to the hispanic immigrants harvesting the majority of American fruit and vegetables. One of his articles, “In the Strawberry Fields”, goes behind the scenes of strawberry cultivation to expose the modern day conditions and abuses that strawberry pickers face in California fields. Known to workers as “la fruta del diablo”, or the devil fruit, strawberries are one of the most difficult produce to harvest. Added to the physical duress of working in the strawberry fields, the majority of strawberry workers receive the lowest farm wages and face both physical and verbal abuse from their supervisors daily. Many are denied access to bathroom facilities, drinking water, and sufficient protection from pesticide exposure in the fields.

Yet, these working conditions are in no way solely limited to strawberry production. Only recently, with the help of reporters like Schlosser and labor-advocate groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), has any significant national attention been drawn to the American fruit and vegetable fields. For example, in 2008 Schlosser was invited to host the panel “Towards a New, Fair Food System” at the Slow Food Nation’s Series in San Francisco. With the help of labor-advocates from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and California Rural Legal Assistance, the panel discussed farm-labor issues ranging from the reality of slavery in the Southeast to the overwhelming trend of poor labor standards and wages for workers in the agriculture, meat-packing, and restaurant industries.

Since then, the panel members have continued to work together to put farm laborer rights at the top of the agenda for the evolving U.S. food movement. Recently, Schlosser has been working with the CIW to help ensure that corporations enforce fair labor standards and wages on farms where they source their tomatoes. In one letter to the CEO of Chipotle chain restaurants, Schlosser served as a primary signature for the message stating…

We write with admiration for your efforts to create a socially just and environmentally responsible restaurant chain…Yet for us, naturally raised meat – important as it is – does not trump decently treated human beings. We are outraged by the working and living conditions we have seen in the Immokalee area of Florida and…. we strongly urge you to enter into an agreement with [the CIW] that has been fighting tirelessly to improve conditions in tomato country since 1993.”

Even Slow Food hotshots, such as the Slow Food President himself, have gotten more involved with the CIW to understand the reality out in the fields and fight for labor justice. On March 4th, 2009, Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel visited Immokalee in conjunction with CIW to witness firsthand working conditions on Florida’s tomato farms. After seeing and experiencing it for himself, President Viertel stated…

This movement has been missing something fundamentally important. Today we are making that connection… Historically this movement has focused on the environment, health and preserving small farms. But we’ve completely missed the boat when it comes to work. Farmworkers need to be part of this movement.

These examples of networking and relationship building between labor advocates, food movement leaders and big-name celebrities are extremely promising in regards to improving the quality, sustainability, and labor conditions of the modern American food system.

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