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Meet Up, Eat Up, Act Up: Consumers Join the Movement for Food Workers’ Rights

12:04 pm in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 19 of the Harvesting Justice series

Behind the Kitchen Door

Behind The Kitchen Door follows the lives of several restaurant workers.

“This is a muddler,” said Danielle, grinding mint into the bottom of a metal cup. With the straightforward demeanor of a good bartender, Danielle was explaining how to make a mojito. But this was not just a fancy drink demo. After the cocktail, she talked with the audience about her working life at an upscale steakhouse chain restaurant, including the steady sexual harassment and the uneasy feeling of being viewed by management as a number more than a person.

The two dozen folks listening to Danielle were part of a trial run “eat-up,” an event that some food movement organizers hope will soon crop up in homes, restaurants, and bars around the country. The events are part of a new push by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and others. (See our previous article for more about these organizations.) The goal is to bring awareness and action for workers’ rights, wages, and conditions into the heart of the food movement.

“We are trying to have workers become as trendy as local and organic has become in the industry,” Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of ROC, told us. “It’s going to take the three stakeholders – workers, good employers, and consumers – working together to actually change things. Any one of those things, if it’s missing, it’s not going to work. Which is why the consumer piece is so critical, and it’s been missing. We’ve actually organized the workers and we’ve organized the employers. We’ve never organized the consumers. There’s a diners’ club that’s basically a credit card, but there’s no organized voice of restaurant consumers demanding change.”

ROC’s efforts to change conditions in the restaurant industry include campaigns to get basic benefits such as paid sick days, and to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. The group and their allies are gathering signatures and raising support for the Miller-Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act. If passed, the law would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage.

ROC also aims to fundamentally shift the power structures that allow the inequities to exist in the first place. “In the long run, it’s really about having a powerful voice of restaurant workers that can counterbalance the power of the National Restaurant Association,” said Jayaraman. “Because these two issues, low wages and lack of paid sick days, are symptoms of the bigger problem of an imbalance of power between this huge powerful industry lobby and restaurant workers. The long-term vision is an industry where workers have an equal voice to employers, have dignity and respect on the job, and have the ability to move up to livable wage jobs regardless of the color of their skin or their gender.”

In order to shift this power, ROC says, consumers must join forces with workers.Throughout the country, ROC is helping restaurant diners understand the reality behind their meals. “Say you’re a waitress at an IHOP in Texas, and you’re working a graveyard shift,” Jayaraman said. “Maybe sometimes you get tips, maybe sometimes you don’t. Which means you may be earning $2.13 per hour, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers.

“That means maybe sometimes you can pay the rent, maybe sometimes you can’t. And 70% of the people earning this wage are women. They’re not these wealthy steakhouse servers you might think about in a large urban city. They’re women with children working at Denny’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden. And a lot of times they struggle to put food on the table. The people who put food on our tables cannot afford to feed themselves.

“It’s super important for us to expand the definition of sustainability and sustainable food,” she said. “Sustainability has to include taking care of everybody who is a part of the food system, who picks, plants, processes, prepares it, and the people who consume it. We all need to be connected and understand our interconnectivity.”

Jayaraman has just published a book Behind the Kitchen Door, which follows the lives of more than a dozen restaurant workers. The book exposes conditions in the industry, such as the facts that 90% of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick leave, restaurant jobs make up seven of the 10 lowest paying occupations in the US, and restaurant workers are twice as likely as the rest of the workforce to be on food stamps.

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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.

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. Read the rest of this entry →

Seeds of Change: Shifting National Agricultural Policies

12:23 pm in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

“The only way we’re going to… change the most basic attitude of policy-makers… is for you and me to become the policy-makers, taking charge of every aspect of our food system – from farm to fork,” said Jim Hightower, the former agriculture commissioner of Texas.[i]

The need for us to become the policy-makers to create a just and sustainable food supply chain is urgent, because in the hands of the US government it has become increasingly unjust and unsustainable. Over the past 50 years, agricultural policies that once supported small- and mid-sized farmers have been whittled away. As a result, more than 100 family farms go out of business every week.[ii] The government has instead turned food production over to agribusiness and allowed large firms to buy up small producers and traders. Currently, in the pork, poultry, beef, and grain markets, the biggest four firms control more than half the market share. Three companies control 90% of the massive global grain trade.

Agribusiness subsidies: lining whose pockets?

People everywhere are stepping up to the plate to force food and agriculture policies to serve us, not multinational corporations. Before looking at some advances and victories, let’s explore ways in which government support has shifted from farmers to some of the world’s biggest corporations.

The government used to set price floors for certain commodity crops, nonperishable staples like corn, wheat, rice, and cotton. The price floors acted as a minimum wage for farmers, regulating the lowest amount they could be paid for their products. Another government program, maintaining grain reserves, allowed farmers to store some grain crops in seasons when they overproduced. This meant that the reserves could be released into the market in less abundant future seasons. The regulation of extra grain helped prevent food shortages and price spikes.

But agribusinesses wanted to buy commodity crops, from which they make processed food products, as cheaply as possible. So they pressured legislators to end price-regulating policies. And legislators responded. Beginning in the 1970s, price floors and grain reserves were gradually eroded; by 1996, they were eliminated completely. Farmers had to lower their prices in response, to attract more customers, and boost production to compensate for lost income.

To respond to the downward spiral of prices and keep farmers from going under, the government ramped up the subsidy system. Subsidies, which began in the 1930s during the Great Depression, use taxpayer money to give commodity farmers direct payments, tax breaks, subsidized insurance, and other financial support. These government payments make it possible for farms to continue selling their products cheaply without going out of business.

However, the real winners in the subsidy system are the corporations who are able to buy commodity crops from farmers for artificially low prices, yielding them even higher profits. Taxpayers foot the bill, underwriting billions in annual profits for agricultural corporations.

The mix of subsidies, together with the elimination of policies that protect farmers, has created such a skewed equation that some commodity crops are sold for even less money than it costs to grow them. This practice, called “dumping,” enables corporations to undercut farmers around the world. Between 2000 and 2003, for example, while the cost of producing rice was approximately $415 per ton, government subsidies allowed agribusiness companies to sell it overseas for just $275 per ton.

The whole system is kept in place by close-knit relationships between corporations and government. Corporations tempt legislators with campaign contributions, votes, and investment in their districts. In return, members of Congress give out subsidies to agribusiness and pass legislation that opens markets in their favor. A revolving door spins government officials into corporate positions and then back again.
The answer is not to throw out government subsidies. Eliminating this support system, without changing the underlying conditions that make commodity farms dependent on it, will not benefit farmers. And some subsidies, like grants for sustainable agriculture and tax credits for renewable energy conversions, can benefit small farmers.

Seeds of Policy Change

The alliances between the US government and big business have become what they are through a series of policy choices and back-room dealings. Other policy choices and more transparent politics could yield different outcomes for small farmers in the US and around the world. Subsidies need to be restructured and new policies need to be implemented to promote a just and sustainable food system. The changes will not come easily, because of the power and profits that flow to an elite few through the current relationships. But organized movements of people can and have beat out big power, when armed with unity, good strategy, hard work, and numbers.
A variety of necessary changes are already underway, and many sectors are beginning to engage to force more. Stay tuned for our next Harvesting Justice blog to read about some victories and advances. In the meantime, here are some resources that can help you learn more and take action on the issues:

Learn about the history of US agricultural policies. Get started at the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy’s webpage (www.iatp.org).

Work to change national agricultural policy. Check out Food and Water Watch (www.foodandwaterwatch.org) and the National Family Farm Coalition (www.nffc.net), and their campaigns to make the US Farm Bill and international trade agreements more fair and just.

Learn about initiatives and campaigns that are challenging structural racism in land distribution and agricultural policies. The Rural Coalition’s report, “A Seat at the Table” (available on their website, www.ruralco.org), is a good resource. And check out Setting an Anti-Racist Table’s list of resources on racial justice in the food system: http://anti-racist-table.weebly.com/racial-justice-in-the-food-system.html.

Lobby your state to make laws friendlier to family farms. Check out the Georgia
Organics Action and Advocacy website to see an example of effective advocacy
(www.georgiaorganics.org/takeaction.aspx).

Check out the following for more ways to learn and engage.
• National Family Farm Coalition, www.nffc.net
• Rural Coalition, www.ruralco.org
• Farm Policy, www.farmpolicy.com
• Food First blog, www.foodfirst.org/en/blog
• Women, Food & Agriculture Network, www.wfan.org
• US Food Policy, www.usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com.
• Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, www.fapri.org.
• Oakland Institute, www.oaklandinstitute.org.
• Organic Consumers Association Fair World Project, www.fairworldproject.org.
• Domestic Fair Trade Association, www.thedfta.org.
• “The Global Banquet: Politics of Food,” directed by Annie Macksoud and John Ankele, 1999,
www.olddogdocumentaries.com/vid_gb.html.
• “King Corn,” directed by Aaron Woolf, 2007.
• “We Feed the World,” directed by Erwin Wagenhofer, 2005, www.we-feed-the-world.at/en/
film.htm.
• “Dive!” directed by Jeremy Seifert, 2010, www.divethefilm.com.

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

[i] “Jim Hightower” in “One Thing To Do about Food: A Forum,” Alice Waters, ed., The Nation, September 11, 2006, 21.
[ii] Farm Aid, based on census data, reported 330 farms a week going out of business in 2007; more recent census data has also shown numbers in the hundreds.

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

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.