GUEST POST: [do you know] who’s picking your food?

September 1, 2011

Christine Allen attended Wellesley College where the college’s motto “Women who will make a difference in the world,” and “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister,” really inspired her. Majoring in history – and especially studying medieval history – helped her to continually search for the familiar & similar – the humanity – in the “other.” This has greatly contributed to the molding of her sense of justice. That, and reading the Bible, are what fire her passion to see greater social justice in this world. Hopefully, these ruminations can help provide some access to some of the things she’s been privileged to learn over the years.

The most inspiring BFJN event that I have been to recently was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ presentation on the plight of Floridian tomato-pickers. By chance, sometime within the last year I had picked up a book calledWhy Immigrants Come to America: Braceros, Indocumentados, and the Migra, which documents the story of who our illegal immigrants are today and why they keep coming despite the ever-increasing risks of their choice. A large part of this history concerns people who have come to the United States to pick our food.

The story of who picks my food and what they go through to do that jars me on a number of levels. I was studying the history of Latin American feminism (and the story of the women in Chile who pick much of our fruit that we eat during our off-season) when I realized that my position as an American today is analogous to the position of the Southern plantation owner in the antebellum days. We have globalized the plantation such that the rest of the world picks the agricultural produce that I use to feed and clothe myself.

The years when our current system of American food production were being established (1940-1970) coincided with the greatest period of economic growth that this country has ever seen. Increasingly, Americans and the production of their food has drifted farther and farther apart. Even when my family has had its own garden, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the actual production of even 1% of the food that I eat. Out of sight, out of mind; and because there’s always been so much readily available, cheap labor, the agriculture industry in this country is ripe for corrupt, exploitative practices.

If you think about it, from the beginning there has been injustice in the agricultural production sector in America. Agriculture was the primary reason we imported slaves (that “peculiar institution”) and the fact that the Southern economy was built on slave-labor to keep agricultural production costs down was a major reason we fought the Civil War. With more than 600,000 dead, the Civil War is the deadliest war that the United States has ever fought: all because some people were trying to preserve a way of life that, at its heart, was unjust.

After the Civil War, we continued with sharecroppers and other small farmers, but with the introduction of big agriculture and the changes in the subsidy system, we really created our modern system of agriculture after the Great Depression. This led in turn to thebracerosystem during the 1940′s – 1960′s in which the United States government actively recruited hundreds of thousands of workers from south of the border to come to the United States to (primarily) help with agriculture. These annual migrations created extended networks of contacts whereby people in remote Amerindian villages of central Mexico knew where to send people who left their villages every year to come to the US, work in the agricultural sector, and return home with spending money in their pockets. Then, in a dramatic reversal, towards the end of the 1960′s, thebraceroprogram was stopped and our government started cracking down on the Southern border. However, shutting down the borders has had the ironic and unintended effect of actually forcing many of these people to stay here since they still face better economic opportunity here than they do in Mexico.

By setting thebraceroprogram in motion, we set in motion a chain of events whereby an entire industry came to rely on cheap, easily obtained labor that’s quite skilled and is the most effective way to keep the profit margin as high as possible on a product as risky as agriculture. Further, the big agriculture companies that produce our food don’t technically employ these workers; so they can hand over their lists of employees to immigration control; immigration control busts the illegal workers; and the employer lucks out in the end without having to pay either a fine for employing illegal workers, having to pay wages to their employees, or invest in any kind of infrastructure, either for the employees or for harvesting their crop. This is very much like the situation that slavery created in the South prior to the Civil War. And, indeed, to hear the tomato-pickers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers speak, our agriculture industry often does lead to a form of modern day slavery for those who pick our food. Yet, because quite often their technical legal status here in the United States is “illegal” or because we don’t want to pay more than the artificially low prices that we already pay for our food, we are able to ignore this situation. As a Christian, I feel that “the laborer is worthy of his hire,” and I cannot silently participate in a system of slavery in the land that is supposed to support, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

(Resources: King Corn, Why Immigrants Come to America, Heaven’s Door)

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