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  • Food and farm worker exploitation and their historic exclusion from labor laws is a tradition that can be traced to the country’s origins and the injustices of slavery.

  • Food justice for those who produce it is just beginning to enter into the local food movement lexicon.

  • Organizing food workers is key to empowering them to participate in the defense of their rights.

  • Alternative business models like worker coops are helping food system workers gain control over their own working lives and to gain access to wealth building.

Food justice in the Hudson Valley

Contributor: Robert Raymond

Food industry work is one of the most highly exploited forms of labor in the United States. This is true for workers all across the food system—an industry that comprises the largest labor force in the country. We explore here why that is so, who is addressing it, and how.


If you were to follow an apple from the farm worker who harvested it in New York’s Hudson Valley, all the way down to the dishwasher scraping apple crisp leftovers off a plate in a restaurant kitchen one hundred miles to the south in New York City, the path you’d trace would be defined by long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions.


There are many reasons why the U.S. food industry relies on exploited workers—and when it comes to farm workers specifically, exploitation is a tradition that goes back all the way to the country’s origins. “If you talk about the labor injustices in the Hudson Valley or the food system in general, part of it is from the historic situation that we're in,” farmer, activist, and writer Elizabeth Henderson explains. “[T]he greater part of the food system is based in the system of slavery, where there were massive plantations worked by people who were enslaved and had no choice.”

When slavery ended, tenant farming and sharecropping took its place—both characterized by continued labor exploitation. Within this historical context it’s not surprising that farm workers were ultimately excluded from the protections provided by labor laws like the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act. “The workers in other sectors [gained] the right to organize, to bargain collectively—but farm workers have not had that right,” Henderson explains. Farm workers were also left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay.


Millerton, New York-based Rock Steady farmers.

Another factor contributing to the low wages throughout the food system are government subsidies that keep food prices artificially low. “The U.S. has the lowest food prices of any industrialized country,” Margaret Gray, author of Labor and the Locavore explains. “We can consider government policies that try to keep food inexpensive...[and] we also know that in the 21st century, we've seen the dominance of a handful of major supermarket chains who become the price setters for food.” These subsidies, which are given disproportionately to white farmers, along with industry consolidation, are the root causes of the labor injustices that permeate the food system, according to Gray. It’s these low food prices that put even the well-intentioned farm owners in a position where they may feel they have little choice but to rely on the continued exploitation of their labor force in order to stay in business.


It is within this complex system of challenges that a broad movement is taking shape, both nationally and in the Hudson River Valley, which aims to insert a labor justice component into a food ethics conversation that has traditionally focused more on environmental criteria: things like pesticide use, sustainable farming practices, and the importance of locally sourced ingredients, for example. Not until relatively recently has this cultural awareness begun to include a conversation about the workers that harvest the kale, pack the strawberries, butcher the pig, serve the salad, or wash the dishes.


And even now, that awareness is still quite limited. According to Gray, if the food system in the United States is going to be transformed into one that values labor, a lot of work still needs to be done around educating consumers. “In order to create a holistic food ethic, we need to rely on consumers—they would need to be educated about the situation of farm workers and they would need to have a shift in their thinking about what sustainability and food ethics mean."


Harvesting cabbage for Rock Steady Farm's CSA.

“The media doesn't cover farmworker issues very well and that makes it difficult for consumers to become educated,’ notes Gray. “It's not a story that has an easy reference point for most Americans and so it involves a lot of unpacking to get the story across of farmworker lives and challenges. That's not easy to cover in a short piece.


For consumers to be educated, the media would have to do a better job at explaining worker’s situations and consumers would have to be open to longer form pieces, documentaries like Food Chains or The Harvest, going to talks, and websites of farmworker organizations, including Farmworker Justice, a national organization. An obvious place for education would be at farmers markets, but when those are run by farmers themselves, that's an obstacle to having handouts at information booths.”


Of course, it’s important to note that decades of systemic racism and skyrocketing economic inequality have led to a system of food apartheid (Ray Figueroa, President of the New York City Community Garden Coalition notes the system has created not “food desserts” but “food swamps” in low-income communities)—leaving many unable to access ethically produced food—even if they wanted to. So despite being an important piece of a much larger puzzle, the constraints put on consumers by economic and social inequality make it so that simply educating the consumer is not enough. 



“In order to address the challenges that the whole range of the food system faces—from food workers to farmers to consumers—we have to address it as a system,” Jose Oliva of Food Chain Workers Alliance says. “We can't address it piecemeal—we can't address one part of it at a time. So while educating consumers is key, if the people who are working in the food system themselves don't develop power, then we are just treading water. This is why we feel it's so important to educate and organize workers.”

Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is a national organization that organizes farmworkers and frontline food workers. They work with a broad coalition of member organizations to engage in workplace campaigns and food policy initiatives at the state and local levels. These initiatives include their Justice in the Food Chain skills trainings that are designed to help individuals organize their workplaces in order to improve working conditions. The organization also plays a key role in supporting a variety of policy proposals, including the Good Food Purchasing Program, a national policy initiative that aims to improve food policy by leveraging the purchasing power of large institutions and municipal agencies.


“The idea is that we identify large institutions like public school systems or cities that buy major amounts of food, and the policy requires them to meet at least a baseline for each of...five categories,” Oliva explains. Those categories include human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, local economies, and, importantly, labor.


“We've passed these policies in seven cities so far, and we have campaigns in another dozen or so cities,” Oliva says. One of these is in New York City, whose school food procurement budget is second only to that of the US military’s food expenditures.


“The Good Food Purchasing Program is one of the more comprehensive policy initiatives that we've been engaged in in New York,” FCWA’s Mid-Atlantic and New England regional organizer Suzanne Adely explains. “We've actually very recently hit an important milestone where the New York City Council speaker, Corey Johnson...announced that NYC’s City Council intends on adopting the Good Food Purchasing Program.”


Soul Fire Farm in Petersburgh, New York, is "training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination."


Hudson-based Letterbox Farm's mission is "to develop an exemplary diversified farm that takes care of land, takes care of people, and generates real wealth in our community."

Although the details of the city’s program have yet to be made public, Adely and others are encouraging city officials to ensure the policy encourages any vendor working with New York City to commit to the Good Food Purchasing Program’s “Valued Workforce” criteria by providing “safe and healthy working conditions and fair compensation for all food chain workers and producers from production to consumption.


Of course, since it could potentially be more expensive for city institutions to work with vendors that meet the Good Food Purchasing Program’s criteria, an important issue to consider when examining the potential efficacy of the city’s program is whether or not there will be mechanisms built in to increase the budgets of these institutions. According to Adely, this is still a pending question. However, “in other cities where Good Food Purchasing Programs have been adopted it has not raised costs,” Adely says.


And according to Christina Spach, National Organizer at Food Chain Workers Alliance, there are examples, such as at the Los Angeles School District, which show that institutions can improve food quality without increasing costs and even decreasing them, in some cases.


Still, some food products may be more expensive, but “there are many creative strategies that institutions can employ to offset potential cost increases,” says Spach. These include strategies like “shifting towards local producers to reduce travel and storage cost of perishables or redesigning menus to reduce relatively more expensive meat purchases and redirecting those expenditures to produce or alternative proteins.”


Further, the Center for Good Food Purchasing provides institutions with technical assistance and advises on which strategies may work based on “budget, current purchasing patterns, and short and long-term goals,” says Spach. “The center can also connect institutions to expert partners engaged in value chain innovations for additional technical support.”


If adopted, this policy could be an important step in ensuring labor justice within the broader New York City food ecosystem—particularly for immigrant workers, who tend to experience higher rates of labor law violations.


Soul Fire full-time farmers work a 40-hour week and receive 15 paid sick/personal days per year.

“A lot of folks who work in the food system work and live in fear of deportation,” Oliva says. “This is an especially salient issue right now. The Trump administration recently announced that they're going to have a heightened series of raids and deportations and we’re already seeing it happen.” Just in August, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted the largest single-state workplace raid in U.S. history, which saw 680 poultry workers arrested in Mississippi. These raids evoke a state of fear within immigrant communities and serve to establish a docile workforce comprised of workers who are unlikely to report labor law violations out of fear of employer retaliation.


“So, with the Good Food Purchasing Program, if there is information that tells us there are violations of international and local labor laws within, for example, a poultry plant, where honestly, more often than not the working conditions are quite horrendous, then that would be used as leverage to change the city's sourcing of chicken,” Adely explains. “[Because] you're part of a food procurement supply chain that now...says that you need to respect labor laws.”


But the ultimate aim isn’t simply to exclude problematic vendors from contract work with the city—the Good Food Purchasing Program is also designed as a mechanism to open the doors to potential vendors who are already engaged in sustainable agriculture and fair labor practices. “The policy is also the leverage to support the companies that are already adhering to basic standards,” Adely says. “So that is capacity building, which could look like supporting cooperatives, which could look like trainings...that's the next stage that we would be starting to talk about as far as New York State is concerned.”



Another important policy development was the recent passage of New York’s Farmworkers Fair Labor Standards Act, which, when it becomes law on Jan. 1, 2020, will finally give farm workers in New York the right to organize and bargain collectively. The law is the result of decades of organizing led by the Rural Migrant Ministry’s Justice for Farmworkers campaign and supported by organizations like Food Chain Workers Alliance.


“It's proven over and over that no policy is useful unless it helps people build more power,” Adely says. “And for workers to be able to have that power, they need to be able to organize—they need to be able to voice their views about their workplaces without fear of being fired. We're very happy that the policy was passed because we feel that it will become the momentum and protection for farm workers to have a more democratic workplace.”

“It's proven over and over that no policy is useful unless it helps people build more power,” Adely says. “And for workers to be able to have that power, they need to be able to organize—they need to be able to voice their views about their workplaces without fear of being fired." 


New York’s Farmworkers Fair Labor Standards Act is just one piece of a much broader movement that has its sights set on bolstering workplace democracy within the food system. Another approach that has been on the rise is the development of worker-owned cooperatives, businesses that are owned and managed by the employees themselves.


“Cooperative ownership of the food system is a really critical component of ensuring that we're moving towards a food system that's not just equitable but that also benefits the most marginalized,” Oliva says. “It could be processing plants, it could be a restaurant, it could be distribution networks that are cooperatively owned by the people who work in those places and the communities that are impacted by those enterprises. That's the ultimate vision that we have of where we want to take the food system.”


Through its cooperative food systems program, the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) has been actively supporting the establishment of worker cooperatives all over the United States—including in the Hudson River Valley.


“I believe that cooperative ownership is one of the key tools to building a more equitable economy,” CDI’s Jonah Fertig-Burd explains. “And when we look at the wealth inequality in our society and the way in which corporations control our economy and our lives and can dominate our food system with corporate consolidation, cooperatives are one tool towards building a new economy that works for people and the planet.”


CDI supports cooperatives in a wide variety of ways, from more basic things like conversations and introductory workshops to much more involved strategies that include working with businesses to develop legal structures, business plans, marketing plans, and access to financing. In the Hudson Valley they have worked with a number of different businesses, including Letterbox Farm, a collectively owned and operated commercial farm in Hudson, NY; Rock Steady Farm, a women and queer-owned cooperative farm based in Millterton, NY; and Soul Fire Farm, an educational non-profit farm in Albany, NY that is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.


 Rock Steady Farm vista.

Despite facing the challenges inherent within the current food system, these farms have been relatively successful in providing higher wages and fair working conditions for their employees. For example, apprentices at Soul Fire start at $15/hour, assistant growers start at $18/hour, and the farm manager starts at $21/hour with a $1/hour raise each year.


“We also provide a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) for health costs and a retirement match,” Leah Penniman, Founding Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm explains. “Farmers get no-cost housing and a CSA share, and full time farmers at Soul Fire Farm work a 40-hour week and receive 15 paid sick/personal days per year.”


It should be noted that Soul Fire Farm is able to provide higher wages in part because they operate a number of different programs for which they receive grant funding.


“The farm income pays for about the first $12/hour worth of the farmers salaries with the remainder being subsidized through nonprofit income of program fees, grants, and donations," Penniman explains.


Of course, the Soul Fire model is a unique example—not all farms have access to the grant funding and donations that would allow them to provide their workers with such benefits. Letterbox Farm, for example, is not a nonprofit. Consequently, and because it prioritizes year round employment, Letterbox offers a lower hourly wage than some other farms. However, employees are still paid more than minimum wage and clock an average of 43 hours per week in the summer, which, according to Faith Gilbert at Letterbox Farm, “is lower by almost a third than the industry norm of 60 hours a week.” 


By supporting these alternative business structures, organizations like CDI are not just helping many food system workers gain control over their own labor, they are also creating new economic models that exist within the constraints of the current system. “[T]he more that we build these examples, these models, these approaches, the more we make these possibilities real to people. And I think that's very powerful,” Fertig-Burd says.


Cooperatives are an interesting alternative to traditional business models because they blur the line between the employer and the employee in a system that is not really working for either. Cheap food prices are one of the major driving factors of low wages in the food system, and this not only impacts the workers, but it also often leaves many farm owners in a difficult position where they cannot afford to pay a living wage to their employees—although they would want to.


“The problem is not the owner of the farm—the problem is the way the price point is set. If [farm owners] want to make a living, they [often] have to exploit farm workers and pay them misery wages,” Oliva explains.

“And so when a farmer tells you we can't afford to pay our farm workers a livable wage, they're not lying to you, they're telling you the truth,” Oliva elaborates. “It means that we have a common enemy, it means that we should band together. It means that the farm workers and the farmers should all look at the way that subsidies work and the way that these large agribusinesses are literally the cause of their own poverty on both ends—both the farmer owner and the farm worker.”

That said, it is an underreported reality that in many cases farm owners live with similar income and working conditions as those they employ—sometimes even worse. It is critical to understand the complex dynamic between the many layers of exploitation that exist in a food system that is not working for the vast majority of those within it.  


“And so when a farmer tells you we can't afford to pay our farm workers a livable wage, they're not lying to you, they're telling you the truth,” Oliva elaborates. “It means that we have a common enemy, it means that we should band together. It means that the farm workers and the farmers should all look at the way that subsidies work and the way that these large agribusinesses are literally the cause of their own poverty on both ends—both the farmer owner and the farm worker. So to me, the solution is really about organizing. It's really about bringing folks together to understand how the food system is structured and what we can do to dismantle the current system and create something that is beneficial to the communities and to the folks who are working in that food system.”


Of course, the development of worker cooperatives on its own is not enough to completely transform the food system in the Hudson Valley. In order to be an effective tool for transformation, organizers like Oliva’s believe that co-ops need to be one part of a more comprehensive toolkit that focuses on policy as well. But the significance of cooperatives is that they are tangible, replicable models that embody the broader vision of an equitable food system. When combined with policy-level work, an organized workforce, and informed consumers, cooperatives can serve as a kind of north star—a model that can guide the path towards a more democratic and equitable food system, both in the Hudson River Valley and throughout the nation.

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