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Mardi Gras In New Orleans: Keeping The Commons Common

8:42 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

Today, as on every Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans is in the midst of full-on mayhem. Depending on when on Fat Tuesday you are reading this, the Zulu and Rex parades are either lining up at their staging sites or rolling down the streets amongst crazed revelers. Mardi Gras Indian tribes in their feather-and-bead suits have been out since dawn, chanting and singing between their stops at neighborhood bars. The skeleton gangs in the Tremé and other neighborhoods, the anarchic foot parades in the Bywater and elsewhere, the breast-barers and the scantily clad gender-benders in the French Quarter… All are part of the wild mix.

Lawn Chairs in front of a stage at Jazz Fest

A reflection on the changing and dwindling of the commons.

One feature of recent Mardi Gras celebrations is missing this year, however. Thanks to a city council vote on January 23, the growing trend of taking over swaths of sidewalks and neutral grounds (as we New Orleanians call medians) is a thing of the past. The long walls of chairs and ladders at the very front of curbs that impeded visibility and mobility, and the roped-off areas that effectively privatized city grounds, are now illegal. So is anything else that cordons off big chunks of space from the public domain, including personal port-o-potties.

“With the new rules, it’s like a different place,” said Uptown resident Tamarin Hennebury. “There’s more ability to stroll right up to the parade, see it well, and catch beads. You don’t have to face territorial battles and get the evil eye, like, ‘You’re in my space. Can’t you see my ladder? Don’t cross that line.’”

The city council resolution was a vote in favor of the commons. That is the set of public spaces, popular culture, natural resources, basic services, and other riches of life and society that are, or should be, enjoyed by all people and cherished for the planet’s well-being. The commons is the fundamental idea that life, information, human relationships, cultural traditions, and nature are sacrosanct and not for sale or appropriation. Another way to conceive of this is how it is characterized in Spanish: el bien común, the common good.

A short list of parts of the commons in the U.S. includes: Social Security; Medicare; libraries; national forests; city bus, subway, and highway systems; the Internet; public schools and state universities; town parks and playgrounds; sidewalks; and mail delivery. Many may take these for granted but in fact, a lot of these resources and services became public through hard-won fights, and another fight is needed to save the U.S. Postal Service.

All over the world, pieces of the commons are being commodified and/or privatized by the powerful and rich, via government law and unfair trade accords. The market is overtaking the world like that voracious yellow Pac-Man, eating everything in its path. A very limited list of what can now be bought and sold includes the creation of babies, indigenous knowledge (so-called intellectual property), public radio and television, schools, human organs, genetic mapping, the use of plants and animals, water, and air. (Yes, air. Carbon trading is, effectively, the buying and selling of air).

New Orleanians who were hard-hit by the flood of 2005 following Hurricane Katrina can no longer take any public services for granted. The city has been a national model for privatization. One of the first acts of the municipal government after the flood was to fire almost every public school employee, from janitor to headmaster. The father of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, came out of retirement a few months after the flood to address the public school system, with its overwhelmingly African-American teachers and student body. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Today, fewer than five public schools remain. Moreover, at a time of record-breaking homelessness in the wake of such grand-scale property destruction, the government took the opportunity to raze most public housing projects, even though few of the brick buildings were structurally damaged. And as for public health, the last in the troika of essential services: forget that, too. Shortly after Katrina, the government ordered shut the city’s one public hospital, Charity, though its buildings, too, were little harmed.

A second level of threat is that of community traditions. New Orleans has always been guided by the two sisters of the commons: gifting and solidarity. On offer to one and all has been a vast repertoire of public-domain music, street revelry, dance steps dating back to Africa before the mass kidnappings, conversations with neighbors and strangers, the sharing of spicy Creole food (including free meals in many bars in African-American neighborhoods), and a we’re-all-in-this-together conviction.

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“The Revolution is Going to be Fought With The Hoe”: Agriculture and Environment in New Mexico

11:49 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Beverly Bell and Tory Field

Hoeing

Hoeing

“We’re surrounded by agricultural land but we have no food security. Right now we’re strapped to the global market,” said Miguel Santistevan, a New Mexican farmer and biologist. “Some people are trying to figure out how to set themselves free and are showing other people. It’s as if we were all tied to a train that’s headed off a cliff, and pretty soon a lot of us are saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to jump off this train before it goes.’

Miguel and his partner Margarita García are helping youth reclaim knowledge about traditions behind lands and waters. Sol Feliz Farm, Miguel’s grandfather’s house east of Taos, is an acre of spiral gardens, rock gardens, and straight rows. The farm’s Agriculture Implementation Research and Education (AIRE) project is capturing the imagination of an impassioned group of youth in northern New Mexico. At AIRE, the youth get to engage in everything from planting seeds to plucking chickens to visiting the state legislature. On any given morning during the summer, you can find the youth irrigating the field, using the traditional acequia method of diverting flowing water to the land via hand-dug channels.

“You figure maize agriculture, 10,000 years of agricultural evolution, at least,” Miguel said, “and we’re losing all that cumulative knowledge.” Miguel is a walking encyclopedia about plants and water, but not the type of encyclopedia you’d find in any local library. “People try to put together equations. ‘Oh, well, you have this many acres and this much corn, and corn requires this much water, so you’ve got to irrigate this many times.’ And I say, ‘Dude, nature doesn’t work that way. Go talk to the Hopi about how much water corn needs.’ I know an elder Hopi who said, ‘It doesn’t even need to rain. A cloud just needs to fly overhead.’

“All these people think that, dammit, this system has to conform to the mathematics of engineers, lawyers and economists, with the help of politicians. That’s why I like working with youth, because the youth don’t buy it. They buy a lot of it: this rap music, and the gangster stuff, and the drug subculture. When it comes to what’s happening to the mountains, what’s happening to the rivers, what’s happening to the elders, they don’t buy it. Some kids are saying, ‘Oh well, the world’s gonna end anyways. The older generation, they already destroyed the planet. Might as well just party, have a good time.’ But other kids are saying, ‘How’re we going to fix it?’
“Our part in this process is not just about social change and justice, it’s also about food production and how do we feed ourselves.

“The other day, we were harvesting corn. Some of these kids are on probation, getting in trouble in school, dropping out of school. Just to see that look on their faces and the wonder as they’re opening that corn up, just amazed at the sight of the kernels, the color… it was awesome. That wonderment, that’s how we’re going to get to the next stage.”

Other New Mexicans are focused on creating a “regional foodshed,” a local food ecosystem that bases its boundaries on ecological parameters like water flow, rather than on arbitrary state lines. One important contributor to rebuilding the foodshed along the Rio Grande Valley is La Montañita Co-op food market. A 37-year-old store with five locations throughout the state, one of La Montañita’s slogans is “fair fresh local.”

The ecosystem dictates what the co-op sells, said Robin Seydel, membership coordinator. “We want to utilize all the eco-climes up and down the Rio Grande Valley.” Currently, 20% of the store’s sales come from more than 1,500 different items produced by nearly 900 local producers. The goal is to increase that to 50%. The co-op’s local production coordinator develops plans with farmers to increase the diversity and seasonality of local foods. “That way we’ll have quinoa from Southern Colorado, chili from New Mexico,” said Robin. La Montañita also provides training in land-stewardship practices and product improvement, and negotiates pre-payment on some contracts to help out struggling farmers.

Over the past few years, as Robin and others at the co-op watched many local farms go out of business, they realized that a major challenge for farmers – especially given the skyrocketing cost of gas – was transporting their products to market. The co-op now leases a refrigerated truck to bring local goods to its stores, like milk from one of the only two dairy farms in the state that still produces and bottles milk for local consumption.

Some other pro-agriculture, pro-environment initiatives in New Mexico include:
* Preservation of agricultural lands, both through direct purchase and mechanisms like conservation easements and agricultural land trusts (see, for example, the Quivira Coalition, www.quiviracoalition.org);

* Community kitchens for small producers so that, without the hefty cost of starting their own commercial kitchens, they can create value-added products and capture a better price (see, for example, the Taos Food Kitchen of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation, www.tcedc.org/TFC.html);

* Production, distribution, and marketing alliances to help small farmers increase their sales (see, for example, the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, www.swgla.org);

* Programs to help small farmers sell to restaurants, schools, and other institutions, (see, for example, Farm to Table New Mexico, www.farmtotablenm.org); and

* Farmer-to-farmer trainings to exchange innovative practices and information.
Miguel said, “The revolution isn’t going to be fought with guns. It’s like [Iroquois author and activist] John Mohawk said: the revolution is going to be fought with the hoe. And the shovel. And not against people, but with people, working the land.”

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

Read more from Other Worlds here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.
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“The Awakening That’s Happening”: Local, Sustainable Food

11:05 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 18 of the Harvesting Justice series

Harvesting greens at Next Barn Over Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts. CSA members visit the farm weekly from June to October to pick up their share of the harvest. Photo: Tory Field.

 

“People are realizing that we can’t rely on the industrial food system much longer. The awakening that’s happening is our greatest opportunity,” says New Mexican farmer and activist Miguel Santistevan. This awakening has sparked the revival of local, sustainable food systems.

At its most basic, sustainability connotes a system capable of continuing indefinitely without compromising future life. Sustainability is also sometimes described as a three-legged stool: in order to be balanced, it must sit equally on sturdy legs of economics, environment, and equity. A food system contributes to community sustainability if it is economically viable for small farmers; nourishing of the earth and elements; and socially equitable for all involved, including farm and food workers and consumers.

Examples in the movement to create local, sustainable food systems are virtually endless. Here are just a few:

* Community gardens are sprouting up everywhere, with an estimated 18,000 in the US and Canada. In most cases, members rent a small plot for a modest fee. These patchwork-quilt gardens, primarily in urban areas, provide a local food source, build community relationships, beautify the neighborhood, and give more people the opportunity to eat homegrown food.

* Educational gardening projects give children and teens the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn about growing food. In East Oakland, California, youth with Oakland Food Connection grew over 3,000 pounds of produce in school-based gardens in one year. Now they’re branching out to create value-added products, like sauerkraut and jelly, and to run a catering business. On the other side of the country, in Orange, Massachusetts, Seeds of Solidarity works with rural and working-class youth to tend gardens at schools, a homeless shelter, and an elder care facility.

Deborah Habib, director of Seeds of Solidarity, said, “Every person is capable of helping to feed their community. To me, it’s really about reclaiming the heart-hands-land connection, so we can each participate, not only as consumers, but by cultivating the earth and cultivating foods.”

* Farmers are growing food for public institutions like schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons. In one instance, the Berkeley Unified School District did away with its tater tots and canned peaches through a policy of increasing the amount of local, organic food it purchases. “We’ve gone from 95 percent processed foods to 95 percent made from scratch,” said chef Ann Cooper. To help allay the higher food costs associated with this program, the school system has gotten bulk discounts from farmers and processors, sources a significant amount of fresh produce from school-sponsored gardens, and uses federal reimbursements from the USDA as well as sales to students. There are now farm-to-school programs involving 12,429 schools in 50 states.

* Real Food Challenge is working to shift $1 billion worth of college and university food purchases towards local, sustainable, and fair sources, and away from industrial agriculture. The nationwide project supports student organizers as they develop campus wide campaigns to get their schools to commit to purchasing 20% “real food” by 2020. They host leadership trainings and events, provide materials and other organizing support, and have developed a Real Food Calculator to help track institutional food purchasing. They define real food as “food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system – from seed to plate – that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.”

* A sad joke goes: If your illness doesn’t kill you in the hospital, the food will. Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont and Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Illinois and Oklahoma are just a few of the hospitals around the country that are part of a growing network of farm-to-hospital programs. Four hundred and forty-four hospitals in the US have signed a pledge, organized by the group Health Care without Harm, to offer more fruits and vegetables, as well as locally grown, fair-trade, and pesticide- and hormone free food. Some hospitals also host on-site farmers’ markets, plant gardens, and compost food scraps.

* Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) creates a direct partnership between a farm and members of the community. Members pay farmers at the beginning of the season, providing them with cash needed to purchase seeds and equipment. In return, each week they receive a share of the harvest, whatever is growing at the time. Members commit to sharing both the benefits and risks of each season. If there is a bumper crop of watermelon, everyone enjoys the abundance. If disease wipes out the tomatoes, share members ride that out as well. This commitment from members gives farmers more protection from both the whims of nature and price fluctuations of the market. By cutting out the middle-people, members have a more direct relationship with where their food comes from and receive a better price for local food.

Started in Japan, CSAs are catching on all over the US and the world. Since its introduction in the US in the l980s, the model has expanded to over 12,500 farms. In some rural areas, members pick up their share at the farm itself, while in cities, farmers drop off boxes of produce at distribution sites. The CSA model is now being used not only for vegetables but also for many other goods like grains, meat, dairy, fish, medicinal herbs, pies, and spun wool.

* Farmers’ markets are also experiencing a meteoric rise. Between 1994 and 2011, farmers’ markets registered with the US Department of Agriculture increased 400 percent. They now number over 7,800. Markets are also vibrant community gathering spots, places to meet, play, connect, and unwind. Food from a farmers’ market or CSA typically travels between 10 and 100 miles, unlike the long distances traveled by their grocery store counterparts.

* Farmers are continuing the time-honored practice of banding together through marketing cooperatives. Selling everything from cheese to cantaloupe, co-ops give small producers more bargaining power in the marketplace. They allow producers to pay discounted prices by buying in bulk; lower their transportation and distribution costs by sharing resources such as delivery trucks; earn a higher profit by eliminating some of the middlepeople; and access federal tax deductions. In 2008, the USDA reported that there were over 2,200 farmer, ranch, and fishery co-ops in the US, with a combined business volume of $213.4 billion. One small-scale example is Moo Milk in Maine. In 2010, 10 organic dairy farmers who had been dropped by the giant corporation Hood created the co-op, through which farmers now keep up to 90% of the profits.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

Read more from Other Worlds here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

 

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Bringing the Food Home: Local Food and Agriculture Systems

7:57 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 16 of the Harvesting Justice series

Indoor farmer's market

An indoor farmer's market.

In Western Massachusetts on a sunny winter day, a farmers’ market was taking place in the entryway of an elementary school. The smell was a mix of apple cider, homemade donuts, and gymnasium. Long rows of tables were heavy with piles of root vegetables, hardy apples, fresh pies, pasture-raised lamb, honey wine, and handmade brooms. There was enough diversity that, if determined and creative, one could make it through an admirable portion of a long northern winter.

In the last few years, winter farmers’ markets have been turning up everywhere, tucked into corners of community centers, churches, and school auditoriums. Farmers in cold climes are pushing the limits of their seasons, growing vegetables in greenhouses and building root cellars to make their harvests last. And communities are aligning their appetites with their climates, relinquishing mealy winter tomatoes in favor of the joys of parsnips and cabbage.

In today’s globalized system, the number of miles a typical piece of food travels before it gets to its final point of sale averages 1,000 to 1,500, depending on which of the many studies one is reading. A small bag of trail mix we recently purchased listed 11 countries as far-flung as Greece, Chile, India, Vietnam, and Tanzania as possible sources for its three ingredients of almonds, cashews, and raisins.

Food literally transverses the globe, creating a major disconnect between us and our source of survival, and creating plenty of opportunities for middle-people to make a profit along the way. For every dollar spent on food in the US, about 84 cents go to middle-people, while only 16 cents go to farmers.[i]

Nearly one-fifth of oil and gas consumption in the US is used to power our industrialized food system.[ii] This doesn’t just include fuel for shipping food, but also for growing it (tractors, pesticides, and fertilizers), processing it (factories, refrigeration, packaging materials), and distributing it (warehouses, stores, and restaurants). When we stand in front of our open refrigerators peering in for a snack, the cold air streaming out the door is the last hurrah on the long, energy-intensive journey our food has made. Between 7.3 and 10 units of fossil-fuel energy are required for each unit of food energy that we consume.[iii] In our current food system, far more energy is used up getting that small bag of trail mix into our hands than we gain from eating it.

Some advocates are strict in their commitment to local sourcing, envisioning an entirely local diet. Others believe that if something can’t be grown in a region and is imported, the price should more closely reflect the true costs, including the environmental impacts of transporting the far-flung food.

Taken alone, “local” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily equate “sustainable.” Local foods can be grown with heavy pesticides or without respecting workers’ rights. And today we have the Walmart-ization of organics, which replicates some of the same destructive practices of industrial agriculture. An increasing amount of organic produce is grown on industrial-sized farms, utilizing harmful practices like monocropping and poor water and soil management, and more of it is being shipped around the globe. As organic food has become a lucrative market, big companies like Kellogg, M&M Mars, and Cargill have gotten in on the gold rush, buying up smaller organic companies and starting organic lines. A deluge of “green-washing,” marketing with intentionally vague labels such as “natural” or “naturally raised” and drawings of idyllic country scenes, is further manipulating and misinforming consumers.

As with everything else related to food and agricultural systems, change toward the local and the sustainable is underway. Below are a few ways that you can contribute:

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From Field to Table: Rights for Workers in the Food Supply Chain

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell
Part 15 of the Harvesting Justice series

The Food Chain Workers Alliance has a goal of nothing less than full rights and fair wages for the 20 million workers who grow, harvest, process, pack, ship, cook, serve, and sell food in the US. Founded in 2009, the Alliance brings together 11 organizations representing workers throughout the food supply chain. It is organizing across sectors, building solidarity between workers in different industries. It is pushing for policy changes and educating and activating consumers so that we can all better align our food purchases with our principles. The Alliance also draws attention to the ways in which institutional racism in the US and around the world has produced a food system reliant on the exploitation of immigrants and people of color.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is one of the founding members of the Alliance. Started in New York City, the organization’s original aim was to help find new jobs for workers who had been employed at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center that collapsed on September 11, 2001. This mission quickly expanded to changing working conditions throughout the entire restaurant industry. In 2008, a national office, ROC United, was launched, which has since helped replicate the model in eight other places: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Houston.

“The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in the US,” said Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator. “It is in the position of creating the conditions, setting the tone, setting the standard, for the entire sector, not just the service sector which has now become the core of our new economy, but for the entire private sector.” If food workers could exercise their power, added Jose, they could improve not only their own working conditions but also other aspects of the food system, from environmental impacts and animal rights to food quality for consumers.

ROC has won numerous campaigns against unjust restaurants, forcing them to change their practices. Their current campaign focuses on the world’s largest full-service restaurant group, Darden, which owns Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and others. In 2012, ROC filed a lawsuit against the company for racial discrimination and wage theft. The organization is also leading a charge to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which has been frozen at $2.13 for more than 20 years. Over the years, ROC has led and won 13 campaigns against exploitation in high-profile restaurant companies, securing improvements in grievance procedures, raises, sexual harassment policies, sick days, job security, and anti-discrimination policies.

ROC is also making the public aware of what happens behind the scenes at restaurants. They have published in-depth reports and a new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, about working conditions, racism, and sexism in the industry.

Other compelling initiatives for food workers’ rights include:

* Dining workers are demanding better wages and working conditions on more than 100 college campuses in the US and Canada as well as at corporate cafeterias, airports, stadiums, event centers and other institutions. Part of the Real Food Real Jobs campaign of the union UNITE HERE, these food service workers are building union power across sectors and geographies. And, they are building bridges of solidarity with university students and faculty to add strength to their campaigns and win better contracts.

* The organization Just Harvest focuses on bridging the gap between the sustainable food movement and the farmworker rights movement. Just Harvest is reaching out to all those concerned about local and healthy food – including food co-ops, CSAs, farmers’ markets, organic producers and consumers – to bring forth the piece most often left out of the sustainability equation: labor wages and conditions for farmworkers. Just Harvest works to educate the public and mobilize support from different sectors such as students and consumers for food- and farm-worker justice campaigns. They are currently supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in their campaign targeting Wendy’s.

* A new certification, called Magen Tzedek or Seal of Justice, is now available to kosher producers that meet criteria regarding workers’ rights, environmental impact, and animal welfare. Kosher foods are those sanctioned by Jewish law, based on a set of standards for how they are processed and prepared. In 2006, after a report that the nation’s largest kosher meatpacker, Agriprocessors Inc., was violating workers’ rights, Jewish leaders began creating the new certification. “As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives,” says Rabbi Morris Allen, a leader in the certification effort. The kosher food industry has sales of $11.5 billion annually, so a shift in practices could have widespread ramifications on the entire food supply chain in the US.

* People are challenging the organic industry to step up to a higher standard in respecting workers’ rights. Organic certification in the US is regulated by the USDA and currently does not address labor rights. Organizations like the Agricultural Justice Project are creating domestic fair-trade labels, meaning the company or farm must meet standards regarding fair wages, freedom of association, workplace health and safety, and farmworker housing. Other groups like the Domestic Fair Trade Association and the Organic Consumer Association’s Fair World Project are playing a monitoring role, making sure certification programs uphold the standards that they profess.

* Immigrant farmworkers are, in some instances, starting up their own farming operations. Many have the necessary agricultural experience but lack the funds to buy or rent land, and are unfamiliar with US markets. A series of programs across the US are offering small pieces of land, “incubator farms,” on which immigrants can start their businesses. The programs provide access to training, loans, and equipment. The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in California and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Massachusetts, as two examples, hold courses on the ins and outs of running a farm. Graduates of those classes can lease land far below market rate and get technical assistance.

Here are some ways you can support food, farm, and restaurant workers organizing for better working conditions:

• Stay in touch with the Food Chain Workers Alliance “Take Action” page at http://foodchainworkers.org/?page_id=289;

• Participate in the campaigns of the Restaurant Opportunities Council (ROC) for a higher minimum wage for tipped workers and for better working conditions. See their action alerts here: http://rocunited.org/action-center;

• Research how certain businesses, restaurants, and corporations treat their workers and choose your patronage accordingly. If you live in New York City, ROC has done your work for you; see their diners’ guide, If You Care, Eat Here, to learn about conditions in restaurants in the city;

* Join boycotts and hold solidarity protests for farmworkers rights. Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farm Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to learn about their current campaigns;

• Join efforts to bridge healthy and local-food movements with the farmworker rights movements. Just Harvest USA tells you how (www.justharvestusa.org/getinvolved.html); and

• Get to know the workers in your life. Offer respect and generous tips at restaurants. Find out how the institutions you are a part of treat their workers, and if workers are organizing, ask how you can support their efforts.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

Read more from Other Worlds here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

We Have a Dream: Farmworkers Organize for Justice

10:47 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 13 of the Harvesting Justice series

Farmworkers on a decorated stage protest for better wages and working conditions.

A "Fair Food" Rally in Lakeline, Florida.

For decades, farmworkers – the more than one million men and women who work in fields and orchards around the country – have been leading a struggle for justice in our food system. They have been building awareness and mobilizing the public, successfully securing some rights, higher wages, and better working conditions. Today, a recent string of victories by the farmworker group Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), together with the steadfast work of other groups, have taken the movement to a whole new level.

The United Farm Workers (UFW), founded in 1966 by Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and others, launched the modern-day farmworker movement. They brought their struggles to national attention by leading boycotts against grape and lettuce growers. Consumers around the country banished grapes and lettuce from their grocery lists, forcing growers to raise wages and to improve labor conditions. Since then, farmworkers have used work stoppages, hunger strikes, marches, union negotiations, and boycotts to win substantial improvements. No longer is it commonplace for crew leaders – those who round up workers and manage the crew – to beat workers, for example, or for farms to aerially spray pesticides in fields while people are working in them.

Exploitation in the Field

Despite these significant advances, farmworkers are still afforded inadequate rights, both on the books and in practice. They perform strenuous physical labor without the protections of sick leave, overtime pay, or health insurance. They are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act that protects workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. If farmworkers try to organize or if they anger their bosses, they can be fired with absolutely no legal recourse. More than half are estimated to be undocumented, and live under the constant threat of deportation if they try to stand up for better conditions.[i] They may also be unable to demand their rights because they don’t speak English, or are unaware of what rights they do have.[ii] Racism and xenophobia play out in many ways, compounding the exploitation.

The minimum wage didn’t even apply to farmworkers until 1966, long after most professions were covered. And today, despite the law, many don’t in actuality make minimum wage. Farmworkers are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line, and most earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year.

These low wages are the result of cost-saving endeavors of corporate players along the food supply chain. The monumental profits of the fast-food industry, for example, come in part from companies’ ability to buy their ingredients cheaply. In an industry with estimated sales of $167.7 billion, company buyers use their power to pay the lowest prices possible to growers and food processors. Growers and processors, in turn, pay the lowest wages they can for field and factory work. Those suppressed wages go hand in hand with suppressing rights, so that workers don’t have the power to organize for better pay.

Farmworkers are also subject to inhumane working and living conditions. In the worst instances, they have been victims of slavery. Workers have been kept under armed guard, locked up at night, forced to work, denied the right to speak to people off the farm, and beaten if they attempt to escape. Since 1997 in Florida alone, the federal government has won seven criminal prosecutions for farmworker slavery, involving more than 1,000 workers. Since 2010, Florida has initiated two more prosecutions.

Most farmworkers come from villages in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are living the boomerang of globalization, often forced to emigrate in search of work because agriculture in their home countries has been weakened by US and global trade policies. One farm advocacy group noted, “US agriculture policy has thus created a de facto immigration policy.”[iii]

Rights and Power

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Weeding Corporate Power Out of Agricultural Policies: Communities Mobilize for Food and Farm Justice

8:07 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

Tomatoes at Waterpenny Farm

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

From the school cafeteria to rural tomato farms, and all the way to pickets at the White House, people are challenging the ways in which government programs benefit big agribusiness to the detriment of small- and mid-sized farmers. Urban gardeners, PTA parents, ranchers, food coops, and a host of others are organizing to make the policies that govern our food and agricultural systems more just, accountable, and transparent. They are spearheading alternative policies on the local, state, national, and international levels. Some advances include the following:

* The National Family Farm Coalition is educating and lobbying to restructure the subsidy system so that it benefits small farmers instead of agribusiness. Together with other groups like Food and Water Watch, Food First, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, they are engaging in research, education, and strategies to help turn us all into effective policy-change advocates.

* People from all walks are becoming more involved in the US Farm Bill. Up for renewal every five to seven years, this hugely influential legislation lays out the framework for national food and farming policy. It regulates agricultural subsidies, food stamps, school lunch programs, rural conservation, and much more. Given the heavy impact this set of laws has on our daily lives, more and more people are asserting the need for public participation in crafting the legislation.

In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, for example, the Community Food Security Coalition, a group of nearly 300 organizations, helped the public learn about and lobby for the issues, and drafted a platform of top priorities. This built on coalition’s history of successful grassroots lobbying for Community Food Projects in the 1996 Farm Bill, wherein government grants go to food projects supporting lower-income communities. During the lead-up to the Farm Bill vote in 2008, community food, family farm, and farm-to-school organizations helped secure vital policy changes. These included placing a moratorium on land foreclosures under certain conditions, prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers for federal loans and grants, and promoting locally grown produce in food stamp and school-lunch programs.

Despite the activism on the most recent Farm Bill, it was allowed to expire at the end of 2012 due to a stalemate in Congress around payments to farmers and broader budget issues. Congress implemented a nine-month extension, but several important programs were de-funded, including support for new farmers and farmers of color, conservation efforts, research into organic farming, and other progressive initiatives. Organizations of farmers and activists are now pushing for these to be reinstated in the next Farm Bill, which is slated for action in summer 2013. Groups such as the Rural Coalition and National Family Farm Coalition have been developing citizen-driven advocacy to ensure that priority programs addressing equity and access issues are not left behind.

* People are becoming wise to the ways of industrial meat, dairy, and egg production, and demanding an end to abuse of animals by industry. In 2008, California residents organized a ballot initiative mandating better conditions for livestock and poultry. More Californians voted for it than for any other citizen initiative in state history. Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Maine have passed similar laws.

* The 2009 “Country of Origin Labeling” (COOL) federal law mandates that retailers label certain meats, produce, and nuts with their country of origin. In 2011, the WTO ruled against COOL labeling for meat products, claiming that it interfered with international trade law. However, due to pressure from the grassroots and groups like Food and Water Watch, the USDA is working to amend the COOL regulations in a way that upholds the labeling while complying with the WTO ruling. Some states such as Vermont, Minnesota, Montana and Maine have their own state-labeling policies and programs to help residents choose foods produced closer to home.

* For nearly 60 years, US law has required that all food aid distributed globally be grown in the US and shipped abroad. This system is inefficient, involving tremendous costs and time. More significantly, imported food aid undercuts farmers in recipient countries, who are often unable to sell their own food when competing with cheap US products. While short-term needs for emergency food may be met, aid imports undermine the local food production that can address hunger in the long-term. Instead, US food processors and transporters benefit. In April 2013, the Obama Administration proposed a policy change that would allow the US government to purchase food aid from within recipient countries, as most other donor countries already do. Organizations like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, American Jewish World Service, and others have been organizing petitions and press releases to gain support for the new legislation.

* Groups at the town, city, and state level are putting together food policy councils to create food systems that better serve their communities. The councils work on projects such as increasing the amount of local food purchased by public institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons; preserving farmland; and drafting sweeping charters to guide future food policy. These councils aim to democratize food systems by encouraging broad public participation in policy-making. Some 200 such councils now exist in the US, with new ones forming all the time.
To become an active and effective citizen-advocate:

• Support a shift in US aid policy to source food aid locally from within recipient countries. Take action to support Obama’s current proposal, and learn more about food aid policies, here: http://ajws.org/reversehunger/take_action.html.

• Plug into advocacy on the Farm Bill. The next few months will be crucial as policymakers determine which aspects of the legislation will be extended. Stay tuned through the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (http://sustainableagriculture.net/), the Rural Coalition (http://www.ruralco.org/) and the Farm Bill Primer website (http://farmbillprimer.org/).

• Consider joining a food policy council, or starting one if there is none in your area. Learn more here: www.foodsecurity.org/FPC/council.html.

* Join up with organizations listed in the last article in the Harvesting Justice series to get involved in their campaigns and movement-building.

Many thanks to Kathy Ozer and the National Family Farm Coalition for their generous help with information and analysis.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website.

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