Giving Thanks for Farmworkers on Thanksgiving

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Tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. Photo by Scott Robertson
Tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. Photo: Scott Robertson

As the nation's annual food fest approaches, let's take a moment to express gratitude for farmworkers, the hard-working field hands who grow and harvest the abundance we're about to eat on Thanksgiving.

It's so easy in the food-obsessed Bay Area to focus on whether our D.I.Y., made-from-scratch meals are perfect or if the raw ingredients of our culinary creations have a pristine pedigree.

But enough food narcissism already: let's talk about the plight of the people who make this holiday possible.

    Some food for thought:
  • Check out the videos from the recent conference TedxFruitvale: Harvesting Change hosted by the foundation wing of the sustainable-food focused Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO). The event, held at Mills College in Oakland, revealed in sharp relief and from first-hand accounts the back-breaking labor of those in the fields, many of whom are still exposed to life-threatening pesticides and labor in shocking conditions. But this day-long event was anything but a downer: The program also highlighted farmworker success stories and alternative ownership models to BigAg.

    The well-curated program (hat tip to BAMCO's Maisie Greenawalt, Bonnie Powell, Haven Bourque and crew) featured a diverse group of speakers that went well beyond the usual suspects who typically wax on at such meet ups -- along with great food, good music, and an inclusive vibe. There were breast-feeding activists and Spanish-speaking farmhands and everyone found a place on the stage and at the table.

    Recurring themes from the day: Hard work, determination in the face of adversity, and the importance of family ties, which seems fitting to mention in a Thanksgiving post. Local organic farmers' market regular Maria Catalán, one of the first Latina farm owners in the country, talked about giving back to her community and the pleasures of working with her children, as did Napa grape grower and wine maker Amelia Ceja.

    Adelfo Antonio of Swanton Berry Farm recounted the benefits of working on a unionized organic farm (one with panoramic ocean views, no less). Former farmworker, José Gutierrez, who once toiled alongside his father in the fields now studies agromedicine, so that workers like his dad can have a healthier life. Reporter Roberto Romano simply let his film La Cosecha/The Harvest, which chronicles the plight of three teenage migrant workers, speak for itself.

  • Stay tuned for the pending posting of the Edible Education 101 lecture that included Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. Not one to mince words, Schlosser says simply that racism is at the heart of the long history of exploitation and abuse that characterizes farmworkers' struggles. He urges us all to stop being consumers, start being citizens, and take some personal responsibility for what we eat.

    Also speaking that evening, the man Schlosser refers to as the next Cesar Chavez, Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organized group of tomato pickers from Florida who have made great strides in improving simply horrendous living and working conditions for produce pickers. (A detailed account of the squalor, abuse, and danger these workers encounter can be found in Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, who first brought national attention to this issue in a James Beard award-winning story for the late Gourmet magazine.)

    In the past decade, the CIW's widely cited Campaign For Fair Food has forced major fast food restaurants, food service companies, and tomato growers to agree to a pay increase for workers and a code of conduct that recognizes workers' rights. (Still to come to the table: grocery store chains such as Kroger, Publix, Walmart, and Trader Joe's, see below.) The Oakland-based Just Harvest USA is a CIW partner and works on fair food campaigns close to home.

  • Take action: Get to know your local farmers. Visit your favorite farms (a green tour guide has been amazed to discover how many people -- Bay Area residents no less -- have never set foot on a farm.)

    Even heavy hitters like farmer friend Alice Waters, who herself had a recent epiphany about the plight of farmworkers, are showing support for farmworkers' struggles. Waters sent snacks from Chez Panisse to feed protesters at the recent Trader Joe's rally (covered on Bay Area Bites).

  • Protest march for farmworker justice in Oakland. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend
    Protest march to Trader Joe's for farmworker justice in Oakland. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

  • Try farming: Got what it takes to harvest in the heat under difficult conditions for low pay and no benefits? The United Farm Workers invites American citizens who think immigrant and undocumented farm workers are stealing all the good jobs to sign up for field work as part of their Take Our Jobs campaign, which caught the attention of The Colbert Report, among others, last year.

Have ideas about how to stay connected to farmworkers and their concerns? Bring 'em on below.


Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.