The Role of Farmworkers in our Food System

This series of blog posts runs from October 14-18 and celebrates Food Week of Action. Learn more and get involved here.

Source: Pexels.com, Nishant Aneja

Before fruits, vegetables, and other produce reaches grocery store shelves, several sets of hands have touched the food that ends up on our kitchen tables.

Essential to food production but invisible to consumers, farmworkers are primary contributors to the safe, efficient, and reliable delivery of our fruits and vegetables. For many farms and growing operations, farmworkers are the people who are most intimately involved with the growing, picking, preparing, and sorting of produce. While farmers with specific kinds of crops have transitioned to machine-based harvesting, many crops still require human involvement.

Unfortunately, the workers who have the most direct connection with the produce we eat are often considered the lowest on the food chain hierarchy. Their social positioning, political and legal treatment, working conditions, and wages reflect this reality. For example, farmworkers on berry farms are often paid under $10,000/year to pick strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries seven days a week while performing physically-demanding labor that requires long periods of bending, kneeling, and hunching that can result in both short-term pain and discomfort and long-term health problems. Additionally, farmworkers were left out of the Social Security Act of 1935 and therefore excluded from receiving both old age and unemployment insurance.

During the Global Food Week of Action, we highlight the role farmworkers play in the production of our food. We seek to understand the social, political, and economic conditions under which farmworkers labor. Working towards a more equitable food system means supporting farmworkers in securing equitable compensation, better working conditions, and appreciating their work. This will work will require cooperation from and dialogue with farmers – farmers who may also struggle with the social, political, and economic realities of the food system. While the connections between labor, prices, immigration policy and human rights in our food system are complex, there are several ways in which YOU can champion farmworkers:

Source: Pexels.com, John Lambeth
  • Support a farmworker-led labor organizing group. Many farmworkers and laborers in the United States are migrant, undocumented, or both. Without institutional political representation, their legal and political security is fragile at best. For many farmworkers, collective organizing is the only political avenue available to secure better working conditions, wages, and vocational security. Supporting a farmworker-led labor organizing group helps farmworkers and laborers fight for their rights on their own terms, using the methods and avenues that best fit their circumstances. For example, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been working since the 1960s to secure the labor rights of migrant and undocumented farmworkers. Other groups fighting for labor rights for farmworkers include the Farmworkers Association of Florida, CATA (the Farmworker Support Committee, and United Farm Workers.
  • Educate yourself. The Agricultural Justice Project has launched a video and blog series called Whose Voice Is Missing which features farmworkers, farmers, and others whose voices are usually left out. 
  • Buy produce from a certified grower or farmer. Similar to certifications for organic and fair trade foods that signify how food has been produced and bought, there are certifications for farms and growing operations that support farmworkers by implementing standards that ensure farmworkers are treated equitably in compensation, benefits, and working conditions. For example, the Agricultural Justice Project, of which RAFI-USA is a co-founding organization, administers a Food Justice Certification for farmers and growers that includes not only standards for worker and farmer compensation and rights, but also environmental standards that support biodiversity and sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Support local, state, and national laws and policies that protect farmworkers. Because many farm workers are seasonal, migrant, and undocumented, they lack substantive legal or political protections regarding their treatment, payment, or well-being. For example, farmworkers have been excluded from several federal labor acts throughout the 1930s.  Advocating for governmental policies that enhance the financial and social well-being of farmers and farmworkers is essential to creating an equitable food system. Learn more about policies that impact farmworkers from Farmworker Justice.

This blog series is put together by RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program team. Learn more about CTTT here.

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