Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Honoring the hands that feed us

Migrant workers such as these work long hours in the fields picking tomatoes for about 45 cents per bucket. If Americans honored the field hands that feed us and raised their pay by 35 percent, it only would cost us a few pennies more per pound of tomatoes at the supermarket. Photo courtesy of Scott Robertson.


Creators Syndicate

Thanksgiving is a holiday built around food. We gather and gorge, sometimes acknowledging the hands of the cook, perhaps thanking the divine, but rarely do we honor the hands that feed us.

Growing the food that feeds our country is one of the most thankless and low-paying jobs a person could have. In 2002, the median net income for a U.S. farmer was $15,848, while hired hands and migrant workers averaged about $10,000 per year. Farming has become so unpopular that the category was removed recently from the census, and federal prison inmates now outnumber farmers.

Migrant pickers often put in long hours, up to 12-hour days, earning about 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. That amount hasn't risen in more than 30 years. At that rate, workers have to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes during an 11-hour workday to earn minimum wage. Most farmworkers don't get sick days, overtime or health care. Some farmers often don't fare much better.

But it doesn't have to be that way. If we stopped putting such an emphasis on "cheap" and instead put an emphasis on "fair," maybe those hands that grow our food could afford to eat, as well. Raising farm wages would have little effect on supermarket prices. That's mainly because farmers and farmworkers are paid only about 6 to 9 cents out of every retail dollar spent.

If we raised farm wages by 35 percent and passed that cost to consumers, it would raise the retail price by only a few pennies, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. The total cost to consumers for all fresh produce would add up to less than $34 per year for each family. If we raised wages by 70 percent, the cost would be about $67. Divide that among 52 weekly trips to the supermarket, and you're looking at spending barely more than $1 per trip to the store. Wouldn't you spend that much to know that people didn't suffer to feed you?

In January 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor informed Congress that farmworkers were "a labor force in significant economic distress." The report cited farmworkers' "low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, (and) significant periods of un- and underemployment," adding that "agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline."

In 2005, Taco Bell ended a consumer boycott by agreeing to pay an extra penny per pound to farmworkers for its tomatoes. Soon after, McDonald's made a similar pledge, effectively raising tomato pickers' wages to 77 cents per bucketful. Burger King steadfastly refused to pay a penny more, until public pressure and political officials pushed the second-largest hamburger chain into doing the right thing. "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser, in a recent New York Times editorial, described Burger King's penny-pinching as "a spectacle of yuletide greed worthy of Charles Dickens."

Several tomato pickers escaped from a trailer they had been locked up in for several days. The workers testified against a slavery ring that kept migrant workers imprisoned and enslaved. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is the most outspoken elected official in Washington to advocate the cause of Florida farmworkers, announced: "I think most Americans would find it hard to believe that people in our country are pleading guilty to slavery charges in the year 2008, but that is what is going on in the tomato fields of Florida."

Coalition of Immokalee Workers member Gerardo Reyes told Fort Myers, Fla.'s, The News-Press: "The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous -- workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss. How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never, ever, occurs again in the produce that ends up on America's tables?"

Immokalee is an extreme example, but it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when you realize the high costs that some people are paying so that we can have cheap food. Most of us do not take the time to wonder why our food costs so little. Instead, we notice how expensive organic or locally grown produce is in comparison.

For agriculture to be sustainable, it must provide a living for those who work our land. Let's honor the hands that feed us by restoring the dignity of fair wages to farmers and farmworkers.

--Buy your produce from local farms where you can meet the farmworkers and see for yourself whether they are treated fairly. The smaller the farm the more likely they are to treat workers well, and some farms have only family members working them.

--Support an increase in farmworkers' wages by joining the Alliance for Fair Food, which is a network of human rights, religious, student, labor, sustainable food and agriculture, environmental and grass-roots organizations who work in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

--A $35 contribution to will help provide health care to Hudson Valley, N.Y., migrant workers and their families. Plus you'll get a lovely calendar of 12 exemplary culinarians.

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning sustainable activist and director of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at To find out more about Shawn Dell Joyce and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at


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