Socially Just Food Systems as a Way of Thinking

This post was contributed by Phil D’Adamo-Damery.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual conference of Agriculture Food and Human Values Society in Burlington,  Vermont. As in past years, the conference consisted of presentations by community and university scholars working on many of the food system-type issues that have been the focus of our conversations as the Appalachian Foodshed Project. One particular roundtable presentation stuck out to me, and I thought I’d share a bit about it as well as my reflections upon it.

The particular sessions was titled: Laboring Bodies: Food, Immigration, Biopolitics and Justice. The four presenters had all recently written books associated with the politics of food, three of the books focused on issues related to social justice and farm workers.

Two of the presenters focused on issues of health and toxins associated with farmworkers who work in berry production—specifically, those who pick the fruit. Julie Guthman, spoke of the debate in California regarding new fumigants to replace the ozone-depleting methyl bromide and the in-built politics being played out on farmworkers. Seth Holmes, a cultural anthropologist and medical doctor, had spent time travelling and working with migrant workers in fields on the West Coast. He described the working conditions endured by farmworkers as a type of socially-justified violence. In Guthman’s case, this can be seen in the regulations established by governments. Though the laws are intended to protect the public, the lawmakers rationalize the poisoning of farmworkers by viewing them as a population—not as individuals—and thereby justifying a certain level of risk. This risk may seem insignificant when looking at the numbers, but the effects are disproportionately born by people, real people, who are made “invisible” by the color of their skin and, often, a lack of documentation. In Holmes presentation, he suggested that the workers themselves justified the negative health effects (pre-term births, respiratory issues, high rates of cancer, etc.) by arguing that their particular ethic group was somehow physiologically immune to the toxins which they daily came into contact.

The other two presenters talked about the role that the local food movement has played in farm labor abuses. When farm sizes increase from the small to medium-scale, even producers growing for local markets often have to hire additional labor. In the two described instances, one in the Hudson River Valley of New York and the other in the dairy farms of Wisconsin and California, these positions were largely filled by migrant workers, most coming from Central America, many lacking legal work documents.

The scholars who researched the dairy farms argued that the working conditions on the small to mid-size farms were usually worse than those of the larger-scale operations. Health insurance, paid vacation, consistent work hours and other benefits were much more common with the larger operations.

So why do the worker in the smaller farms stay? The scholar who had written about the Hudson River Valley farms that supply the Green Markets of New York City suggested that a certain level of paternalism was keeping those workers from filing grievances, demanding better conditions, or seeking other employment. In these smaller operations, the farm workers often live on the farm and have personal relationships with their boss. While this may seem like a benefit, she argued that this also plays a decisive role in retaining farm workers in deplorable working conditions.

So while the first two presenters described the effects of the industrial food system on farm workers, the second two described a local/regional system that was also problematic and perhaps more insidious.

These presentations were jarring for me. They stood as a visceral reminder of the dysfunction and madness of our food system. As an individual eater, they made me pause and consider my personal ethics, but as a food system worker, they made me pause as well.

Much of the local, regional, community (whatever you want to call it) food movement (this includes me) has focused its work on criticisms of the industrial system, or at least of the status quo. We create these ways of talking about things that frame the industrial system as bad or unjust and our alternatives as better, or more just. But as I have found, again and again, when I think myself into this frame of mind (ie. that labor conditions are better on our local/regional farms) I later encounter something that complicates my perspective. Even in this presentation, the scholars were on the cusp of doing this with the way that their criticism of what the local/regional/community food movement has gotten wrong about farmworkers.

This makes me wonder: rather than develop new ideas about how the food system (industrial or alternative) is failing and new silver bullet fixes, might we instead work on developing new ways of thinking about justice: ways that do not necessarily “fix” it, but view it as a process, as an on-going cycle of reflection and refinement? Can we think of justice, not as something to be discovered, but as a process, a way of thinking?

Instead of trying to generate our ideas of a just food system based on the failure of the current system, might we be better off trying to develop ways of thinking that do not limit our ideas of justice to our ideas of “good” food, but instead free us up to ask hard questions about how we might enable our fellow humans to be (borrowing from Paulo Freire) more fully human and more fully alive?

Phil D’Adamo-Damery is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech and a graduate research assistant with the Appalachian Foodshed Project.