How Every Dollar You Spend on Groceries Impacts a Farmworker

March 29, 2016

Over the weekend, I moderated a panel discussion about modern agriculture’s impact on the land, as well as the people who work it. We heard from an environmental toxicologist who studies the ecological and health implications of huge Texas beef cattle feed lots, and even from a biologist who has worked with genetically modified organisms. By far, though, the most powerful moments of the panel came when two farmworkers—Dolores Bustamante and Rosario Jaramillo, both immigrants from Mexico—relayed their harrowing experiences working in apple orchards in upstate New York.

Jaramillo told about wrapping a bandana around her face and pulling a ball cap low on her head to essential hide herself in the fields—to prevent unwanted sexual advances from her boss and male pickers. She also shared her story of being asked to show up to work nine months pregnant during the apple harvest, then giving birth to a son the next day. Bustamante spoke about the short- and long-term impacts of breathing the toxic pesticides sprayed on apple trees day in and day out.

These courageous women’s stories stunned and moved a roomful of activists, farmers, and lawyers. But these are not isolated incidents, sadly, and most stories of farmworkers like Jaramillo and Bustamante often never become public.

You may not know this, but we’re right in the middle of National Farmworker Awareness Week—a week set aside to remember the field-worn hands that bring us our food. Did you know that 85 percent of our food is handpicked by 2 to 3 million farmworkers, many of them immigrants? Many of these workers pay a steep price to bring us cheap food: obscenely low wages, if they’re paid at all; 14-hour (or longer) days in dangerous conditions; mistreatment by superiors; debilitating chemical exposure; and more. By most accounts, working on a farm is one of the country’s most dangerous jobs. It’s great that we set aside a week to celebrate their contributions to our food supply.

But one week is not enough.

We need to honor farmworkers every week. In fact, it’s crucial that we remember the planters and pickers every time we stock our refrigerators and pantries. Buying organic is one way we can help—farmworkers on organic farms are exposed to fewer pesticides and herbicides, for instance—but that’s only one part of it. Studies have shown that the conditions on many organic farms are just as poor as those on conventional farms. Increasingly, consumers are demanding that the brands and stores they frequent commit not only to clean, sustainable foods, but transparent and safe workplace standards as well.

Many of the brands you see here at Thrive Market—such as Lundberg Farms, Nature’s Path, and Wild Planet —have strong commitments to fair and ethical treatment of all their workers. Choosing fair-trade certified products also ensures that you’re supporting companies that pay their employees decent wages and provide humane working conditions. Do some research on your favorite brands to find out where they stand on worker conditions before you stock up.

And next time you bite into an apple, think about Jaramillo and Bustamante and the millions of farmworkers like them, and purchase accordingly.

Photo credit: rach2k via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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