Tag Archives: immigration

On Food and Labor, Briefly

David Beriss

Andrew Puzder has decided to withdraw his name from consideration for Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, nominating a fast-food executive who opposes raising the minimum wage and likes the idea of replacing workers with machines raises a lot of questions. Yet even without Puzder, most of those questions remain relevant, especially since Mr. Trump has, in his other cabinet picks, pursued an agenda that favors big corporations and their leaders over improving the lives of workers. As a consequence, the conditions faced by workers in the food industry need to be at the core of the food movement for the foreseeable future.

When I posted the weekly reading digest earlier this week, I forgot to include a link to an important editorial on immigration, restaurant work, and low wages. Written by Diep Tran, for the NPR food blog, the piece focuses on the problematic idea that foods associated with certain ethnicities and immigrants should be cheap. Tran, who runs Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, points out that the expectation of cheap food in Vietnamese, Mexican, or other restaurants can only be met if workers in those restaurants are very poorly paid. His article is a call for better pay and working conditions in “ethnic” restaurants, linked to a willingness by consumers to pay a more reasonable price for the food they serve.

There are many reasons to call attention to the issues raised in this editorial. Questions of low pay and bad working conditions are critical in many parts of the food industry, not just in restaurants. A number of anthropologists have in fact written about these issues – Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, for instance (on undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago restaurants), or Steve Striffler (on workers in a chicken processing plant, mostly immigrants), or Seth Holmes (on migrant farm workers). As these authors (and others) all indicate, the struggle over wages and working conditions in the food industry is also related to debates around immigration in the United States.

Although many of us like to celebrate the idea of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, it is worth keeping in mind that it has long been a nation in which those immigrants are exploited and abused, especially if they are undocumented. People often seem to remember Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” for its depiction of the horrors of the meat packing industry in early twentieth century Chicago. Those horrors were inflicted mostly on immigrant workers. In fact, virtually every way in which those workers were exploited in the novel is still being practiced somewhere, either in the United States or elsewhere, today, as we have pointed out on this blog before. We should keep that in mind whenever we wonder about why food at the grocery store, the fast food restaurant, or “ethnic” eatery seems ridiculously cheap. Perhaps what we should be celebrating is that, historically, the U.S. has also been a nation of labor activists, in which workers have mostly received better wages and working conditions when they have successfully organized for them. That is happening now in much of the food industry and seems more necessary than ever.

Anthropologists will no doubt continue to do an excellent job of documenting the exploitation and dangerous conditions that workers—immigrant or not, documented or not—encounter in the food industry. We also need to remind people that if workers are going to have living wages and decent working conditions, all of us may have to pay more for our food. This points to a broader issue, since food industry workers are far from alone in being poorly paid. The struggle for a living wage for all workers, linked to access to affordable housing and health care, should be central to the food movement itself. And, of course, it remains the core issue confronting the future Labor Secretary, whoever that turns out to be.

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Anthropological perspectives on migration, food and nutrition

Preparing injera, a transnational Ethiopian dietary staple

With the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we republish SAFN’s monthly news column from that publication.  This is the May 2011 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

In this column we highlight a recently published NAPA Bulletin (vol 34), “Anthropological Perspectives on Migration and Health,” edited by SAFN President Craig Hadley. Articles in this volume address the diet and nutrition of various migrant groups that navigate complex and changing cultural, political and economic contexts.

Hadley’s introduction underlines that interactions between migration and health are highly complex. Anthropologists and allied health professionals have struggled with this complexity, hindered by the use of categorizations that obscure the heterogeneity between and within migrant populations; by imprecise proxy measures of acculturation, which are unable to specify mechanisms by which migration can impact health; and by too often focusing on the health impacts of individual-level agency and group-level cultural norms rather than on social inequalities and public policies that limit access to wealth and information.

Heide Castañeda provides a theoretical and methodological overview, asking what larger anthropological questions can be advanced by studying migrant health. She notes that the study of migrant health highlights global inequities related to labor and health care. The study of migration and health also encourages a rethinking of borders, connections and identities, and ideally forces anthropologists to consider how the knowledge they produce affects study participants and serves certain political agendas. Castañeda asserts that widespread reliance on charity clinics, volunteerism and humanitarian efforts for providing migrants with health care reflects that societies have become accustomed to inequality, and that states are unwilling to address “conflicting economic and political demands related to the continued need for certain forms of migrant labor” (p 20).

SAFN Treasurer Crystal Patil and colleagues report on exploratory ethnographic study of food access and diet among refugee groups of various African and Asian countries resettled in Midwestern US cities. The authors note that refugees face many challenges and opportunities as they transition from low-income contexts characterized by high mortality and low reliance on processed foods to high-income contexts characterized by low mortality and high reliance processed foods. Their ethnographic data suggest multiple ways in which “health and well-being are produced and eroded on arrival in the United States” (p 155), involving interactions among the resources and services available within environments of resettlement, migration geopolitics, the influences of peers, resettlement agencies and ethnocultural norms, as well as individual characteristics and household socioeconomic status.

Ramona Pérez, Margaret Handley and James Grieshop provide an account of the political, economic and nutritional implications of lead-contaminated ceramic cookware produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. This cookware is sent along with food care packages to migrant families in Monterey County, California through envios. In the late 1990s, the cookware was linked to lead toxicity resulting in gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and malaise, which were detected among Mexican-American children seeking care at public clinics in Monterey County. In California, the public policy response was to conduct unannounced health inspections on businesses thought to be involved in the envios system, to confiscate food items and threaten to fine the businesses. This approach was perceived as akin to racial profiling and discrimination and drove some envios underground. In Mexico, the policy response has been largely nonexistent because Mexican officials do not consider lead exposure a significant problem. In addition, the Mexican state cannot afford to provide ceramic-producing communities with resources necessary for production techniques that do not require lead. Faced with these sensitive political and economic challenges, Pérez and colleagues decided that one way to address the health impacts of lead exposure was through nutritional programming in both Oaxaca and California. Promoting diets rich in calcium and iron can prevent the rapid absorption of lead. While this approach does not eliminate the problem, it “provides profound opportunity for a healthier life despite the lack of intervention by Mexican government officials and absence of community based health programming by health officials in the Monterey area” (p 120).

Other food and nutrition-focused articles in the volume include Horton and Barker’s on the diets and oral health statuses of Mexican immigrants and their children in California’s Central Valley; Dharod and Croom’s on the prevalence of child hunger among Somali refugee households in Lewiston, Maine; and Trapp’s on the implementation of the USDA and Office of Refugee Resettlement Food and Nutrition Outreach program.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

Posted by Kenneth Maes.

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Filed under anthropology, culture, economics, food policy, food security, nutrition, publications, SAFN Member Research