Review: The Human Cost of Food

The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor, and Advocacy

Edited by Charles D. Thompson, Jr., and Melinda F. Wiggins
Austin: University of Texas Press
(357 pages)

Reviewed by Lois Stanford
Anthropology, New Mexico State University


This edited volume presents a compilation of chapters examining the dimensions of the farmworker experience in the southeastern United States, including the economic reality, cultural perspectives, legal complexities, living and working conditions, and unionizing efforts. The compilation reflects the accumulation of knowledge and experiences under the long-established internship program of the Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), a non-profit organization which has placed college students in farmworker agencies throughout the US Southeast (in particular in North Carolina and southern Florida) since 1993. In addition to presenting an overview through the text, the volume includes a proposed course syllabus, contact information for farmworker organizations and agencies, and recommended readings. Writing in a readable narrative style, community activists and farmworkers themselves present an overview of farm labor in the southeastern United States, educating the novice reader of the human experience behind the fresh fruits and vegetables they consume.

In his introduction, Charles Thompson, Jr., Director of Curriculum and Education at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, presents a general overview of the challenges faced by farmworkers, exposing the manner in which the organization of the US food provisioning system makes farmworkers invisible to the consumer. The second chapter characterizes the ethnic diversity across different farmworker populations, focusing in particular on the cultural complexity and maintenance of cultural traditions by Mexican immigrant farmworker populations in the US. Drawing on the general statistics drawn from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), this chapter captures the richness of the culture Mexican migrants reconstruct in the US, highlighting the important role that religion, rituals, and family play in constructing a sense of community within migrant populations. Subsequent chapters contextualize the experiences of Latino immigrant farmworkers, detailing the historical experiences of unionizing efforts (Chapter 3), guestworker programs (Chapter 4), housing conditions (Chapter 6), and health issues (Chapter 7), among others. Most poignant is the discussion of challenges faced by migrant farmworker children in education and strategies advocated to broaden education efforts and make the educational system more responsive to the needs of farmworker households. Written in narrative style, these chapters all present background statistical information yet focus primarily on the human experience, using case studies, personal experiences, and testimonials to highlight the struggles faced by farmworkers. The use of testimonials between the different chapters and the integration of case studies presents the reader with the human face of farmworkers, evoking in the reader a stronger connection with those harvesting his/her food.

In the conclusion, Melinda Wiggins, the SAF Executive Director, draws on her own family’s historical experience as farmworkers as she personally draws the linkages between farm labor and the American consumer. These connections underlie Wiggins’ argument that all consumers have a responsibility to reflect on their own role within the food chain and to become more involved as advocates for farmworkers. This edited volume makes no attempt to present a detached, objective assessment of the farmworker situation in the United States, contending instead that the human face behind the food requires a political stance, consciousness, and advocacy.

Readers or instructors looking for more detailed, statistical information on the socio-economic, ethnic, or working conditions of farmworkers may want to complement the humanistic narrative with statistical information and/or table from US government sources, such as the US Department of Labor or the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS). These data would provide critical comparison, both to better understand the situation of farmworkers across different US regions as well as to contextualize the experience within the US Southeast. In focusing on the human experience, the volume does not present broader, statistical background material on farmworker working and living conditions even throughout this region itself. To further complement the advocacy narrative, the government and non-profit advocacy agencies listed in the appendix also provide their respective web sites, all of which provide more detailed statistical information. The strength of this edited volume lies in its regional focus on the southeastern United States, providing an overview that complements other similar studies that have detailed farmworker experiences in California, the Midwest, and US Southwest. Inevitably, faculty interested in using the volume as a reader will need to supplement the more dated material (i.e., reflecting the US agricultural system of the late 1990s) with more current information and insights gained from the globalization of the US fresh fruit and vegetable industry in the first decade of this century. The recommendations heralded by Wiggins in the conclusion (unionizing, legislative initiatives, and efforts to connect with farmworkers) must now reflect the challenges of international competition on a global scale, current efforts to restrict undocumented migration, and the current financial crisis in the U.S. economy. The reader is left with the sense that perhaps it is time for the second edited volume to continue the farmworker story and to remind Americans of how their food comes to their table.

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