Food reform won’t be won on plates alone

Late last month, a varied group of writers, scholars, and labor activists gathered in Portland for a panel discussion on labor, food, and immigration policy. Among the panelists were Larry Kleinman, Secretary-Treasurer for PCUN; Mary Mendez, Deputy Director of Enlace; and Paul Apostolidis and Aaron Bobrow-Strain, both authors and professors at Whitman College. While the evening began with the panelists praising Slow Food for convening around these issues of food and labor, they each quickly dispensed with the formalities, and began to lance many of the common precepts and comfortable foundations of our movement.

Through each of their remarks, the groups launched a well-constructed —and constructive— critique of the common, market-based approach to food reform. “The American agrarian ideal of the small family farm is largely a myth,” began Bobrow-Strain. Throughout history, as he went on to explain, American food reformers have latched onto this model as the golden alternative to food system woes. The issue, however, is this was never really the reality. “Even Ma and Pa Engels of Little House on the Prairie,” said Bobrow-Strain,were not early Wendell Berrys; they were serf farmers, scattered across the Midwest, beholden to Eastern landowners, and dependent on selling their wheat to England in order to eke out a living.” By idealizing a past that never happened, we’re imagining the realities of labor right out of the equation. Essentially, food reform has often pre-supposed, or required, an invisible labor force.

Apostolidis expanded on this point, explaining that when faced with worker injustice, we often retreat to a position of “moral benevolence:” though moved by the social injustices of what we see, we are still removed from the people involved. When we pity the conditions and can’t bear to support the companies that create them, then we seek out alternatives in the marketplace and hope that our boycotting will have an impact on the mainstream product. In practice, this approach to food labor reform relies on Bobrow-Strain’s “American agrarian ideal;” it presupposes a vibrant community of small-scale, financially-solvent farmers ready to serve as counterpoint to industrial production. However, even among the farmers at local markets, many must still employ low-wage migrant workers, because few farmers themselves are adequately compensated for their own labor. This approach only further divides the consumer from the producer.

The panelists overwhelmingly agreed with this assertion: marketplace solutions are not true answers. Bobrow-Strain interjected with the brief history of the anti-pesticide movement; after a series of early legal successes, the efforts of the 60s and 70s turned their focus from banning various chemicals to choosing alternative products in the marketplace. But in creating the choice between a “clean” product and a “dirty” product, the movement split the marketplace into a premium price solution for the wealthy and a low-cost problem for the poor. In other words, consumer action doesn’t necessarily change the products, it just stratifies the market and placates the concerned individual with a “good choice.” Further more, as Mendez put it, “When you demand things with the market, big companies only end up with more power, like Tyson raising and selling organic chicken. We must stand with workers in order to change conditions.”

Which brings us to Apostolidis’ proposed alternative to “moral benevolence:” instead, we must search out the mutual inter-dependencies between farmworkers and food laborers and ourselves, and view them as collaborators in reform. Whether or not we choose to buy goods produced through their labor, the struggles of America’s farm labor play out in our lives in very real ways, in terms of such issues as OSHA enforcements, environmental protection, and corporate responsibility. By viewing farmworkers as peers in reform that has ramifications for all of our society, our efforts will be less paternalistic. “We need to move away from viewing workers as the passive objects of society and policy,” Apostolidis declared.

By turning clean, fair, and wholesome foods into niche markets with premium prices and specialty labels, we’ve ended up placating the most engaged and concerned segment of the populace with an easy market answer. Furthermore, this tack focuses on price and wages, and the true issue at the heart of farmworker struggles is that one of power. As Larry Kleinman put it, “Our work is a struggle of rights, of standards, and of remedies: who has the rights, what are the standards, and who gets the remedies. If you don’t have remedies, your rights are meaningless.” Therefore, as the panelists proclaimed, our efforts need to focus on immigration reform, on workplace safety, and on power-sharing amongst employees.

The difficulty for many individuals is that these things can’t be changed through consumer purchasing, meaning that activism requires more effort than choosing between two melons at the store. This can be discouraging to even the most engaged citizens, particularly when you don’t know where best to channel your efforts for public policy change. To that end, the panelists offered some suggestions for productive avenues for public involvement. One of these, certainly, is to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, but another, less obvious path is to press for a resurgence of anti-trust regulation. The Obama administration has called this out as a legislative priority, and it’s one that certainly applies to the food industry. Kleinman explained that, “An oligopoly is defined as four companies controlling 40% of a market — in meatpacking, only four companies control nearly 85%.” To this, Bobrow-Strain added: “The long history of food safety reform has benefited large producers.”

Apart from calling your legislators and advocating on behalf of anti-trust regulations, another productive avenue is to press for comprehensive immigration reform. Without making changes to our immigration policies, our country will continue to be plagued with anti-immigrant rhetoric, while failing to acknowledge the many real jobs and services that countless immigrant workers perform for all Americans. To this end, it is important to support the efforts of groups like EnlacePCUN or the United Farm Workers, who recently launched their “Take Our Jobs” Campaign, challenging American citizens to fill the gaps in the workforce that would be left by deportations of illegal workers.

It was good to hear these suggestions from the panelists for practical political action, because eaters can often feel powerless when faced with the broader issues behind the food on their plates. But, that said, all of the panelists made it clear that to choose between shopping responsibly and activism is a false choice. As Kleinman said in the Q&A, “We must be omnivores of political action.”

More resources for action and learning:

Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN)

Enlace Institute

Breaks in the Chain by Paul Apostolidis

Why Eaters Along Can’t Transform the Food System, by Tom Philphott on

Agrarian Dreams, by Julie Guthman

Shopping for Change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO, by Robin Jane Roff

Aaron Bobrow-Strain also wrote to share one more story after the event:

Historically speaking, I should be more careful with my words:  I don’t think that consumer power can’t change the food system (in the past, consumer boycotts have been amazing successful tools.  Lots of examples of this dating from the anti-saccharinists who refused to buy slave-grown sugar in the early 1800s to the recent Taco Bell boycott for the Imakolee tomato workers).  Rather, I am concerned about the current form of consumer politics–e.g. niche market buycotts.

There’s a great story I didn’t tell on Monday about the early 1940s: the depression had wracked havoc on the country’s nutritional health and war was looming–malnutrition was a national crisis (50% of the first million men screened by selective service doctors in 1940-1 were rejected as physically unfit to fight–and at the very least 30% of those cases were due to malnutrition).

So the country needed to do something about rapidly improving nutrition.  Bread was a natural medium for this because 95% of Americans ate bread at least once a day and it accounted for about 30% of daily calories in the country and because, the poorer you were, the more you relied on bread.  So, the baking industry proposed a premium price route: it would cover the cost of improving bread nutrition by marketing synthetically enriched white bread for a price premium alongside regular unenriched bread.  Elites would buy the premium price product, it would become trendy, and soon, the companies argued, everyone would want to pay extra cost for enriched bread.  Everyone would win: the companies wouldn’t lose a cent (in fact they’d make more off premium price loaves) and the country would eventually get its nutritional improvement.

The government responded:  Nope.  This is important.  We want you to immediately start enriching *all* bread and not charge a premium price for it.  The industry complied–and, whatever one’s opinion of factory white bread might be, it really helped improve the country’s nutrition.  The industry discovered that enrichment gave bread more cache with consumers and so they kept on doing it voluntarily even after the government lifted the requirement at the end of WWII.

In other words, once the government required all bakers to improve their bread, the industry discovered that it really wasn’t that much of a burden.  It really didn’t cost that much more, and it helped build long-term consumer support for their product.  I think there’s a lesson there. The only down side: when the government put its support behind synthetic enrichment it took the wind out of the sails of food reformers who wanted to return to whole wheat bread or “naturally” enrich white bread with soy protein, but still…

Thanks for sharing