Recognizing Workers in the Food System

From by Sarah Small
Recognizing Workers in the Food System

Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, introduced the first panel as the “perfect opportunity to bring together the workers’ movement and the food movement.” These two movements, as explained by Shuler, are “closely aligned,” and should be treated as such.

Shuler noted the power of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, on initiating changes in food conditions, but stated that there has been nothing similar to boost social momentum for the quality of working conditions in the food industry.

These poor working conditions experienced by food workers were expanded upon by the memories of Baldemar Velasquez, co-founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, when he picked produce as a child laborer. Velasquez recalled working in the strawberry fields more than 40 years ago, and how worker conditions today have yet to improve. He stated that, “we [farmers] don’t want welfare, we want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” Velasquez ended on a personal note by saying that every victory in favor of workers is a victory “for my mother, my brother, my sister.”

Jose Oliva, Associate Director for Food Chain Workers Alliance, reiterated Valasquez’s plea for better working conditions for food industry employees. Oliva broadened the scope of worker conditions by saying that the changes happening in the field “[are] not just about better working conditions; [they’re] about better food.”

Melissa Perry, professor at The George Washington University and president of American College of Epidemiology, said that “[represented…] the health and environment from a research perspective.” Perry reflected on Velasquez’s experience as a child laborer, condemning the practice. Her focus lies in three areas: funding more public health research and energizing occupation safety administration; strengthening occupation safety and health administration; and the power of the consumer.

Mia Dell, Chief Lobbyist at United Food and Commercial Workers, agreed with Perry’s opinion that the food system “is convenient to ignore, but it’s not sustainable.” She remarked that, “we don’t want to think about where the ground turkey is coming from,” but that this thinking is necessary in order to stop purchasing products produced by prisoners, slaves, and children around the world.

Jeremiah Lowery, Research and Policy Coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United D.C., discussed what he would do if he had the power to put this kind of thinking into practice and fix the food industry. He said he would work upon the foundational thinking behind the “farm-to-table movement.” In Washington, D.C., he has seen a massive movement in farm-to-table practices. He asked the audience to get involved by saying, “Let’s work together. You play a huge part in our workers’ movement.”

Patty Lovera, the Assistant Director at Food and Water Watch, noted that at the moment, “big companies [have] more power in marketplace and the political arena.” Lovera stated that “lobbyists are writing the rules,” where the people should be in control of the decision-making in regards to food. She returned to the focus of the panel by saying that the “bigger market share for these companies means less choices for everyone.”

Written by Maggie Roth, JMU Student/ Food Tank Volunteer

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