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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Potato or Tomato?

This past weekend, Food Empowerment Project and SCCAA (Santa Clara County Activists for Animals) had tables at the Green Kids Conference in Mountain View, CA. This first-annual conference was organized by kids for kids. In fact, the founder is an eleven-year-old boy --inspiring in and of itself.

In addition to having literature, stickers and other materials out for kids and specific information about how eating animals impacts the environment, we decided to have a game that kids could learn from.

After seeing videos and reading about children not being able to identify various fruits and vegetables, I decided to make a game in which the kids had to identify various foods. Of course, I cheated a bit as I went to Whole Foods Market and had them teach me about a variety of different veggies and fruits.

As the South Bay is a very culturally diverse area, I chose some unusual fruits and vegetables so that if the kids did not know what they were, it would be a great opportunity for them to learn about foods from other cultures. I tried to throw some easy ones in there, too.

I chose beet, bok choy, chayote, eggplant, dino kale, ginger, jalapeno pepper, lychee, mango, potato and tomatillos. I wrote a brief description of each item, including where they came from and other tidbits. I felt it was important for the children in attendance to see the link between their heritage and the food they probably eat every week.

We had a sign that read “Win a Prize: What Am I?”

The prizes? Stickers, coloring books and buttons (“I Don’t Eat My Friends”).

Of course, things don’t ever go as planned. Since most of the kids coming by the table at the beginning of the event were very young, they needed their parents’ help. From then on, everyone received their choice of a button or coloring book.

Over the course of the day, we would eventually hear parents say, “Oh, this is the game we heard about!” or, after having one of their children play, they would come back with an older or younger sibling to play again.

It was fun to watch the parents get excited when their children got it right and embarrassed when their kids couldn’t even guess. It ended up being a great learning experience for all, especially since we were able to tell them how healthy the various foods were.

We could truly see that the lesson was learned: one parent told her son that he was going to have to go grocery shopping with her as he couldn’t identify half of the items (and identified a potato as a tomato), and other parents talked about having the kids start cooking with them. One woman explained that the counters were too high for her daughter to see as she was chopping – but maybe she should lower the cutting surface so her daughter could watch and learn.

It was wonderful to hear the parents remind their kids how they ate these foods regularly – bok choy in stir fry, kale in the pasta, as well as the people telling us the different names of the foods in their native language – Chinese or a certain dialect from India, for example.

Overall, the day was a success, and it was exciting to have kids and their parents crowd around tables that addressed veganism and the treatment of animals while learning an important lesson about how detached most people are to foods these days.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lives of farm workers Part II

Click here to read the Lives of farm workers Part I.

After spending some time at the home of the strawberry worker, we drove to a nearby labor camp. If you are like me, the first image you have when you read “labor camp” is that described in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (an amazing book). I figured it must be better than that, and I have to admit, I didn’t even think labor camps existed anymore; yes, it was better than what I expected.

Here was a tiny community nestled between the dump and a correctional facility. It illustrated perfectly what environmental racism is all about. If you have ever seen military housing (meaning two tiny apartments next door to each other), this is kind of like what it was.

The building we met in was a school for the children. It was filled with bilingual books and learning games. But the testimonials we were going to hear definitely were not fit for children.

Six out of 10 women who cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. are sexually assaulted. As more women have become aware of this vicious act, they are actually starting to take birth control pills before they cross.

One of the young women we met, from Oaxaca, was raped during the crossing. This beautiful, young girl now has a baby boy. We were told that she has been learning to cope with the help of a nun. She had traveled back and forth with her father when she was 16 or 17 years old. They would travel as far as Michigan to help pick apples, blueberries and cherries and also go to Indiana – where they would pick corn.

But her father died while still in his 50s, and this time she traveled alone and unprotected. When she got here she slept outside in the wilderness because she had no place to stay. Then she went to a women’s shelter and eventually moved into a house with other women. Because of her son, she no longer has any plans to migrate back and forth.

We met other women who work in the strawberry fields – many have children. One had worked in the strawberry fields for 19 years. She spoke about extortion at the border, where gangs demand money for safe passage. She talked about a car full of people trying to cross the border, and when they refused to pay, one man was beaten and had his wallet stolen.

She works 7am – 4pm and has to produce 25-30 cases of strawberries (one case equals 12 baskets of strawberries). One of the women sustained an injury and suffers from excruciating pain doing this work.

She also discussed the problem of wage theft, which is very common for farm workers. A contractor will disappear when it is time for them to get paid. The growers blame it on the contractors and the workers have no recourse to collect payment for all of their work.

One of the questions brought up during the tour was why are the workers coming here? One of the main reasons discussed was NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which basically serves to benefit the United States. According to Dr. Lopez, millions of subsistence farmers were driven out of Mexico because of NAFTA. These are farmers who were able to grow enough food to feed their families and sell enough of the surplus to make a living. And a majority of these farmers grew corn, which was (and still is) a vital part of the diet in Mexico. However, with NAFTA, the U.S. was able to export much cheaper corn (which is subsidized by our government and was more plentiful due to GMO corn). Unfortunately, the introduction of GMO corn by the U.S. can literally wipe out the various strains of corn that have existed in Mexico for centuries.

In addition to this, I contend that corporations (from the U.S. and elsewhere) also go into Mexico for production of products (some of which are toxic, such as televisions from Panasonic) where they pay the workers less than they would be making in the U.S.

In the next and final section on the lives of farm workers, I will discuss in more detail about another form of corporate welfare – labor camps.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lives of Farm Workers Part I

I don’t consider myself to be an expert on farm workers, though I do feel I am pretty educated on the issue and on some of the history. And, of course, it is part of Food Empowerment Project's outreach efforts because of how passionately I feel about it.

In the 1970s, my mom participated in the first boycott of grapes organized by the United Farm Workers, so I was exposed to the issues of farm worker justice at a young age. Then, in the 1980s, I joined the grape boycott when it started again.

In Austin, Texas, I attended St. Edward’s University, which has a program called CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program). I remember learning about it when I started my work study job my first year there – they told me about the program, and my response was, “But we don’t have migrant farm workers anymore.” Unfortunately, this offended my boss, who actually had been a recipient of the program many years before. (She never did like me, but I think it was because of my involvement in animal rights which was pretty unheard of to many at the school.)

I had no idea. I thought that certainly the U.S. had found a way to give permanent jobs to those who grow our food. Not so. By the time I was graduating, I was doing papers on farm worker issues as I was going to school with them and was learning directly from them.

I remember one of the students who truly opened my eyes as she told me about her family and their experiences on the farms. Her mom would have sores on her body due to the agricultural chemicals, and although she was a little girl, she was the only one in her family who spoke English so the foreman would yell at her. How many times does a grown man get away with yelling at a young girl?

Fast forward to where I am now. As most of you probably know, justice for farm workers is a big part of Food Empowerment Project's mission. And I have done my best to stay informed on these issues; admittedly, I usually feel as if I have a good handle on it. You can read some of what we have been talking about on these pages of our website:

And yet, I continue to learn more and, well, none of it is good.

Several months ago I was contacted by an amazing high school student in Gilroy, Calif. I had the opportunity to meet her and her wonderful group. She was so incredibly informed on these issues – more so than even many college students I speak to.

But in addition to her desire to volunteer with us, she also wanted to connect us with the Center for Farmworker Families. Through this, I met the founder and an inspiring woman named Dr. Ann Lopez. She has studied farm worker issues in the Salinas area (this is near Santa Cruz and a strawberry-growing region) for more than 15 years.

One of their projects is to conduct Farm Worker Reality Tours. A few Food Empowerment Project volunteers and I had the opportunity to join one of these tours before my speaking engagement in Vancouver.

We were able to go out with a farm worker to a strawberry field where he showed us how he works, and then we were able to take a tour of the “house” that he shares with his wife and seven children (and at least one dog).

We found that strawberry workers like him (to protect him and his family, I will not even use an alias) can only expect to live to be 49. He spends 13 hours a day bending over, picking strawberries. The top salary is about $9 an hour, and they will earn .70 cents per 12 baskets they are able to fill. Incentive to work quickly means workers (who don’t earn a lot) are less likely to take breaks.

According to Dr. Lopez, this is one of the few families she has ever met where the whole family is still intact -- where the father didn’t come alone to the U.S. to send money back home. He brought the whole family with him.

Their house is a converted shack. It has one bedroom with a small kitchen and an even smaller living room. The bathroom is incredibly tiny as well. They have lovely portraits of the family up on the walls. But the place seriously looked in desperate need of repair and they pay $900 a month for it. In downtown San José (about 1 hour away) you can get a nice apartment for about a hundred dollars more. And yet, here are workers who get paid doing back-breaking work and essentially being gouged financially at the same time. Their water? It is contaminated – full of nitrates. He doesn’t complain as he doesn’t want to get in trouble and lose his job.

The houses in the surrounding hills are large and look down on the fields. These are owned by the people who make the money off the fruits of land and the backs of the workers.

When we asked for the name of a strawberry company that treats its workers well, we were told Swanton:

Part II will include testimonials of the farm workers and their stories of crossing the border and their work.