Tag Archives: food

The Harvest / La Cosecha

While many Americans know that a largely Latino labor force harvests food in the US, few likely know that some 400,000 children also pick crops every year, too. The Harvest explores this even more troubling aspect of the US food system—its exploitation of child labor. Many people are unaware of the decades of struggle necessary to eliminate child labor in the US—through the labor movement and eventually codified in law—but even more unknown is that agricultural work has always been exempt, not only from overtime, safety protection, and originally Social Security, but also from child labor prohibitions.

Three Latino minors are presented in The Harvest: 12-year old Zulema, 14-year old Perla, and 16-year old Victor. These youth and their families harvest onions, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and peppers, in many states, including Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio. The lives of these youth are similar to many others: they primp and prime for the approval of peers (Zulema delays her family’s morning departure by taking extra time to put on makeup before heading to the fields), take care of and play with their siblings, help their families, rebel against their parents, attend school, and express discomfort with their lives. But, they also are unable to attend school regularly, they work with—and in some ways for—their parents for paid employment, move regularly, and in the case of Zulema express having goals, but no dreams. Thus, even though their lives are similar to many working class youth—getting jobs at earlier ages than their middle-class peers—they are even more stressed by economic forces, family pressure, and dislocation.

It might be easy to blame parents for children who are working in the fields. But, as The Harvest shows, the relationships children have with their parents is far more complicated than one might imagine. These parents want their children to goto school, be successful, and not remain migrant farm workers. And, the parents often do not even ask their children to help out (at least initially). Victor describes how he decided to pick crops to help his family—on a slow day, he estimates that he picks approximately 1,500 pounds of tomatoes. The pressures felt by these youth seem to come from all sides. Their families have expectations for them, which are themselves contradictory: get an education, but also help the family out. Society wants them to work hard, follow orders, goto school. Peers want them to hang-out, have a consistent presence, and do kid stuff. Schools want them to show up (or, seemingly, just drop out and stop causing so much administrative trouble). Perla wants to be consistent at school, but since her family moves so much, she can’t finish each year. Her grades do not always transfer from one school to the other and she had to re-do an entire year because of it.

The day by day grind takes its toll, even on the most optimistic. All sorts of small problems emerge to make things difficult. Their parents develop sore bodies and injuries far earlier in life. Sicknesses that happen without medical insurance lead to periods of unemployment. Unavailable work leads families to be economically stranded. These factors compound on top of each other, causing occupational entrapment, for the parents and children. Since the children have a hard time finishing school (there’s a very high drop-out rate for the children of migrant farmworkers), children have to rely on employment for survival as opposed to higher education and professional jobs.

The work that the children do is physically challenging, even for adults. The work is harder than they expect it to be, even though they eventually build up strength and endurance for it. Their knees get sore from kneeling, their backs get sore from bending over, and they get exhausted from the heat and lack of food. Victor washed his arms at the end of each workday with bleach because soap couldn’t remove the chemicals that coat his arms as he works. These chemicals (pesticides, plastics, etc.) also make it hard to breath and remain standing. In fact, an estimated 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. This is where the narratives of “hard work” and meritocracy in the American mythos are crucial to analyze. So, what exactly is the benefit (for them, at least) of getting poor, working class Latino kids to work hard? It seems to train people to tolerate their lot in life. Systematically, the myth of “hard work” benefits those in power. Of course, the wealthy rarely do physically strenuous or dangerous work (yes, they may have to think, but it mainly happens in air-conditioned buildings, in cushioned-chairs, with nice salaries), so this is really a by-product of ideological class warfare.

Ultimately, the consequence of using children as farmworkers seems to benefit agribusiness elites more than anyone else (even American consumers). The average farmworker family earns less than $17,500 per year—hardly enough to pay for the expensive cost of seasonal relocation, children, and growing medical bills. This low salary is most pronounced, as the farmworkers describe going to supermarkets. They see the very crops they picked (maybe even personally picked), but find it nearly impossible to afford. A simply calculation would show that an infinitesimal part of each item’s cost went to the migrant who picked it. This suggests a very clear problem: in order to deal with the economic need of families to have their children financially help out (and child labor itself), we have to deal with the exploitative conditions under which migrants toil. This does not necessarily mean raising the costs of food, since the profits of middle-men corporations and other agribusiness interests are incredible. Even a humble portion of this profit could be redistributed to migrant farmworkers and improve their living conditions. Of course, capitalists are always hesitant to make workers “too comfortable”, since it’ll increase worker bargaining power. But, it’s a struggle that is worth fighting. Unfortunately, the Harvest does not explore the rich network of social movements, farmworker unions, solidarity organizations, social workers, and others who work to achieve political reforms and economic parity. As the one downside to the film, its absence might leave viewers feeling angry and powerless, whereas the reality of farmworker resistance can itself be inspiring and hopeful.

Themes: migration, immigration, Latinos, youth, work, food

Dive! Living Off America’s Waste

A unique film whose time has finally arrived, Dive! focuses upon people who “dumpster dive” in Los Angeles, in search of recently discarded food from grocery stores. Divers salvage safe, quality food from the dumpsters and use it to prepare meals with. While salvaging or gleaning is an old practice (probably thousands of years old, dating back to the earliest farms), as applied to the supermarket era, this is a relatively new phenomenon.

The film’s characters are people who have a social critique of wasteful consumerism and are not squeamish about picking through trash to find things they believe should not be classified as trash. Many are hipster-looking, all are white, and mostly male. Many, including the film director, are comfortable salvaging meat—at least when it’s been recently frozen or cooled—which suggests they are omnivores or at least freegans (willing to eat meat if they don’t pay for it). While the film presents an analysis of meat’s wastefulness (i.e., translating calories of grain into animal meat) there is little concern with reversing this tide of bad eating, or encouraging there to be less meat production. This illustrates one of the main problems with the film: there is a superficial critique of the problem of distribution, but no structural analysis of why the problematic food system is as it is.

The documentary does give an admirable analysis of food inequality in the US and why salvaging is needed to better use food surplus. Here, Dive! discusses poverty, especially in a big city like LA, where hundreds of thousands are poor and face food insecurity daily (meaning individuals are unsure of where their next meal is coming from). This stark poverty is contrasted with an analysis of all the ways in which food is wasted, from the field to shipping to the grocery store aisle to consumer’s plates. In the US, half of all food grown is ultimately wasted and not consumed. While the divers’ intervention (at the point of commerce) is one of the less “lossy” parts (compared to fields and from consumers), it is clear that an incredible amount of perfectly good food is thrown-out all the time when it could be better consumed by many of the poor people who live in close vicinity to these sources of loss.

The director focuses upon a “good Samaritan” law that allows people to glean food from dumpsters—although the divers themselves are shown debating with each other whether or not it’s acceptable to go into a locked dumpster (most think it’s okay, given the value of salvaging food). He focuses a lot of attention on the Trader Joe’s corporation, often seen as an eco-friendly supermarket, but whose dumpsters are often full of perfectly good produce. Divers simply toss-out any rotting food and save the good food; in many bags, there’s only a few items that are going bad, but consumers will pass-over the entire bag. and, thus it is never sold, although the rest of the contents are acceptable.

Food charities—who for decades have been serving in a greater capacities as stand-ins for government assistance during right-wing regression of the social safety nets—are also featured prominently. Most charity providers would like access to more food—especially fresh produce to prepare meals with—but do not have enough access or resources. The film reveals that some supermarkets are providing food items to these charities, but not all. The most commonly donated item is bread, which rots slower, but is less needed due to its oversupply. Grocers seem very concerned with avoiding liability from possible lawsuits due to food poisoning experienced by those who salvage food. The director makes it his personal mission (almost a la Michael Moore) to get Trader Joe’s to explain their dumpsters full of ripe produce, but he gets consistently shrugged off. He finally discovers that managers and PR agents are less open to the conversation that are rank-and-file grocery store employees, who are more willing to dialogue and sometimes set aside food.

One nice aspect of Dive! is that it normalizes dumpster diving—at least to the extent that people can identify with the characters it features—who seem nice, principled, and sometimes funny. They use the salvaged food to make delicious meals for themselves and others. The community of divers is made up of counter-cultural people who have values critical of the industrial food system. They even have three admirable “rules” to diving that they enforce upon themselves, including taking only what you need, first one in gets to pick first (but has to share), and leaving the dumpster cleaner than when they found it.

As someone who worked for years with Food Not Bombs (FNB)—an organization that does very similar salvaging efforts—I was both encouraged and disappointed by Dive!. It is nice to see this practice being promoted and explained to wider audiences, and the critique of poverty and waste is welcome. But, most of the food was being consumed by the divers themselves, who many admitted they didn’t actually need it, economically-speaking. (The film does note that the divers began to see people who likely couldn’t actually afford to buy food eventually going in dumpsters, too.) While toward the end of the film the diver community engineers a large pick-up to deliver to a charity, there seemed to be a reformist attitude that I thought was only scratching the surface of the issues at hand.

Even FNB—which is in fact a radically-oriented, anti-capitalist activist and mutual aid project—does not completely work “outside the system”, as it relies upon the excesses and waste of capitalism. As such, FNB and charities both need waste in order to function. Of course, part of FNB’s work is to illustrate this waste and to prefigure (or suggest through demonstration) better ways of behaving in the world. But, diving is still dependent upon the system’s dysfunctions to persist. If supermarkets get less wasteful or farms produce less food, all that does is just rein in waste, but does not address the inequality of the system itself.

The director admirably cites a Noam Chomsky quote about activism—that it is important to act in order to create progressive change, since those in power rarely do it themselves. But, the film ultimately recommends a reformist solution: better salvaging for the poor, as opposed to ending the institution that both produces the waste and creates poverty: capitalism. All the same, Dive! is a good conversation-starter about this issue of food waste and poverty, and does a great job of humanizing people who are principled and concerned about these issues. I imagine that many people who see this film will not pass by dumpsters with the same indifference again!

Topics: food, poverty, environmental, social movements