More Persistent Inequality: Farmworkers and Your Food

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of postings by students in a graduate seminar on food justice at the University of New Orleans. You can read more about the class and find the syllabus here. The class is part of a new PhD program in Justice Studies at UNO.

María M. Pabón
UNO Food Justice
Loyola College of Law

Before joining UNO as a PhD student, I was fortunate to co-author a book about immigrant children in this country, entitled Persistent Inequality: Contemporary Realities in the Education of Undocumented  Latina/o Students. In this book, my coauthor and I examined and analyzed how the educational system and the immigration law system in the U.S. maintain undocumented students in what we called “persistent inequality.” We found that for immigrant students, race and ethnicity intersect with legal status and education to perpetuate injustices that U.S. citizen children do not experience.

What I have learned now as a PhD student in Dr. David Beriss’ Food Justice class is that the agricultural system and the immigration law system serve to maintain immigrant workers in persistent inequality as well. It is clear that with regards to immigrants in the United States, race and ethnicity intersect with social class, through all kinds of practices and institutions. Think about this: Whose were the last hands that touched your fruits and vegetable before you bought them? You can bet that they were those of an immigrant farmworker. Do you want to make sure that these farmworkers were not exploited? Do you want to make sure no children are working in the fields? What about pesticides, etc.? Insights into these and other related questions about food injustice are found in Seth Holmes’s fascinating book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Dr. Holmes examines the practices and ideologies surrounding immigration and farm labor to produce and reproduce inequality.

Holmes examines how the organization of labor in the fruit farms and immigration policy on a broad scale force migrant farmworkers to live under massively exploitative conditions where they are underpaid as well. In addition, most of these migrant farmworkers have to cross the dangerous U.S.-Mexico border without papers, at risk of their own lives, all in order to provide farm owners with profits.  Holmes recounts how he crosses the border himself and puts his own life at risk, against the advice of his lawyer (not a good idea in my view!). Once he is in the U.S, Dr. Holmes goes to work in the fruit fields with immigrant workers and with regards to justice, his findings are unfortunately not surprising.

In fact, there is very little justice in the fruit fields. The bodies of the farmworkers break down from the dire working conditions. Racial, cultural and linguistic divides condemn the Latinx farmworkers to the lowest rung of the fruit cultivation ladder. The living conditions are appalling for these workers as well. It is clear from this book that a just food system should recognize that the last hands that picked the fruit we eat here in the U.S. are those of an exploited farmworker who lives and works in subhuman conditions, with little access to  health care, culturally competent or otherwise. Clearly there is a need for safer working conditions and livable housing for migrant farmworkers in the United States. 

We see in Holmes’ account  another way of viewing the relationship of food with immigration justice. There is no justice for immigrant workers in this country, since we have lacked comprehensive immigration reform since 1986. Neither does justice for immigrants have much chance of coming to fruition (no pun intended) based on partisan politics and Congressional inaction that have paralyzed immigration reform.  This is even without discussing the ravages of NAFTA and globalization on Mexico and how it has forced workers to come to the U.S. I think that the notion of a reflexive approach as conceived by DuPuis, Harrison and Goodman (2011) would allow for progress through processes and practices that make U.S. society better for farmworkers instead of reinforcing inequalities. Local governance can be more just, even when dealing with issues that have global implications (like trade or immigration). For example, we can act locally to create a movement for more just working conditions for immigrant workers in a similar fashion as we have acted locally regarding higher minimum wages in Washington state and  identification cards for undocumented persons in New Haven, CT. Imagine that at least some states or localities can take individual actions and would do more to better the conditions of workers than merely waiting for the federal government to act when it is hopelessly gridlocked with regards to immigration.

As we can see in Holmes, the agricultural labor system in the U.S. doesn’t just produce food, it produces persistent inequality for the immigrant laborers. Labor is a critical aspect of food systems, so it is possible to reimagine this book as illustrating a labor rights justice issue as well as racism  justice issue. Either way we can see that this book allows us to sharply reflect upon justice in our society through the lens of food and shed light on yet another persistent inequality against immigrants in this country. Thus, the same way my coauthor and I pointed out the injustices for immigrant children in the educational system in Persistent Inequality, Holmes points out the injustices for immigrant workers in the agricultural system of this country in Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.

Works Cited

DuPuis, E. Melanie, Jill Lindsey Harrison, and David Goodman, 2011. Just Food. in Alkon, Alison Hope and Julian Agyeman, eds. 2011. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Pp. 366-395.

Holmes, Seth. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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