Adding chairs to the table

The panelists involved in last night’s inaugural food labor event offered us sobering perspectives on agricultural workers, as well as hopeful and heartfelt encouragement to continue advocating about these issues. Food labor is an issue that should be important to all eaters, but it is one that can be intimidating to address. Nevertheless, it is a growing conversation and we are bolstered by the waiting-list crowd that came to Ecotrust last night to learn more about how their food is harvested.

For the Slow Food Portland Steering Committee, it took weeks of passionate discussion to figure out how best to address the people who feed us. As our internal debate grew, so did our understanding of just how multifaceted these issues are and how necessary it is to initiate a continuing dialog around them. To that end, we could not have imagined a better kick-off event for our food labor series than last night’s panel – the panelists’ comments and the insightful audience questions suggested countless narratives to follow as we delve more deeply into fair food.

As I write this post, I am listening to an episode of OPB’s Think Out Loud devoted to Oregon migrant labor and thinking of how this issue of labor has gained momentum in the last year. It seems like the moment is right for this discussion, that it is on everyone’s lips. At the panel, we heard about the lack of value placed on manual labor, the inequities of food access that go hand-in-hand with poor labor practices, and the simple fact that farmers often make little more than their workers. Last night was an opportunity to expand the discussion to include a few more voices and we’d like to do so even further. Going forward with “The People Who Feed Us” series, we welcome your suggestions for labor issues to cover. Do you want to hear more about domestic fair trade certification? Women in farming? Young farmer training? Migrant labor issues? Immigrant farmer services? Join in the conversation and help us to make this series as strong as the first event.

A special thank you is in order for our panelists Jeff Falen, Jim Bronec and Ramon Ramirez. Their presence expanded Slow Food’s table and made the conversation richer.

Thanks for sharing

  1. Sarah

    I had a thought as i was driving home last night. Are there any local farmers who produce fair-trade csa boxes? If people are willing to pay more (and they sounded like they were last night) for fair-trade produce, maybe this is one way to help support their hard work.

  2. Donald L. Gibbon
    Donald L. Gibbon11-24-2008

    We have held an Apple Festival here in Pittsburgh for the past three years, part of the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, sponsored by Slow Food and the local Sierra Club. We continue to try to include the workers, without whom we would HAVE no festival! But it’s tough, hard to grapple with, no matter how good your intentions. Here’s a letter I had published last year on this topic. Thanks for your good work.


    Published as an Op Ed piece in Lancaster Farming, the largest farm-oriented newspaper in the East,
    on November 24th, Thanksgiving weekend, 2007

    Here in urban Pittsburgh we just held a great Apple Festival, celebrating Southwest Pennsylvania’s long history of growing apples and making cider. We have at least thirteen orchards in the surrounding counties and seven cider makers (Editorial note: actually quite a few more… 17 and 11, maybe, and counting), some with five generation histories on the same land. We also held the Second Annual Pro-Am Apple Pie Baking Contest. We’re well on our way to making Pittsburgh the “Apple- Pie-Baking Capitol of the World.” We’ll take you on if you’re interested in contesting that claim! We had thirty two pies in our contest last week… and a couple of hundred of us ate them!

    Thinking about the Festival in the aftermath, I was counting my blessings, feeling thankful for all the farmers and farm families that make this whole thing possible. Of course, our purpose is to promote “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” Our intention is to some day soon wipe the supermarket shelves clean of apples from Chile and Washington and have our own Gold Rush and Empire and Staymans taking the place of the ubiquitous Gold and Red Delicious, the Fuji and the Granny Smith. We want our special produce to be acknowledged as the “taste winners,” not the most uniform and the most bland. We want to admire the snap, the fragrance, the amazing array of local colors and textures.

    But my mind then drifted over to the story of the Little Red Hen, a tale lots of youngsters may not be familiar with. The Hen goes to her various barnyard animal friends and successively asks, “Who will help me plow the field? Plant the wheat? Harvest the wheat? Grind the flour? Bake the bread? “ and not one soul offers to help. But when she asks, “Who will help me eat the bread?” she suddenly has lots of willing helpers.

    And that reminds me of the fact that our Festival is one hundred percent dependent on farm workers who do all those essential tasks to bring our wonderful harvests to our tables. I’m going to dedicate my Thanksgiving to the farm workers… all of them, migratory and resident, legal and illegal, young and old, male and female, Anglo, Latino and every other nationality… and to their families, with them on our farms or elsewhere, wishing they were together. I’ll give my thanks to the farmers who hire and train these people to do what needs to be done to succeed as suppliers of our Thanksgiving dinners.

    May I suggest that true “homeland security” lies in having a dependable local source of food, not some multi-thousand mile chain of refrigerator planes and ships and trucks. And that means we need to consciously devote ourselves to the uplifting and preservation of the local farm economy. And that means we have to make it possible for farm workers to make a living doing what they do. We may just have to pay more for essentials like vegetables and meat grown nearby and less for trivia such as cable television fees.

    One of my favorite signs says: Farmers feed you three times a day. I’m proposing a new maxim here. See if you buy into it. It has occurred to me that: Between you and almost every good thing in life lies a pair of skilled hands. Think about it and be thankful for those hard-working hands. Between you and that loaf of six-grain bread you enjoy so much lie a lot of skilled hands, doing all those tasks the Little Red Hen couldn’t get any help with. Those hands belong to our farm workers and we appreciate them.