Hands That Feed Us

By Shawn Dell Joyce

Thanksgiving is a holiday built around food. We gather, we gorge, and sometimes acknowledge the hands of the cook, perhaps thanking the divine, but rarely do we honor the hands that feed us.

Growing the food that feeds our county is one of the most thankless and low paying jobs a person could have.  In 2002, the median net income for a US farmer was $15,848, while hired hands and migrant workers averaged around $10,000 per year.  Farming has become so unpopular that the category was recently removed from the U.S. Census, and federal prison inmates now outnumber farmers.

Migrant pickers often put in long hours, up to twelve hour days, earning about forty-five cents for each thirty-two pound bucket of tomatoes. This amount hasn’t risen in over 30 years. At that rate, workers have to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage. Most farm workers don’t get sick days, overtime, or health care. Some farmers often don’t fare much better.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we stopped putting such an emphasis on “cheap” and instead put an emphasis on “fair” maybe those hands that grow our food could afford to eat as well. Raising farm wages would have little effect on supermarket prices. Mainly because farmers and farm workers are paid only about six to nine cents out of every retail dollar spent.

If we raised farm wages by 35 percent and passed that cost to consumers, it would raise the retail price by only a few pennies according to the Center for Immigrant Studies. The total cost to consumers for all fresh produce would add up to less than $34 per year, per family. If we raised wages by 70 percent, that cost would be about $67. Divide this over 52 weekly trips to the supermarket and you’re looking at spending barely a dollar more each week. Wouldn’t you spend that much to know that people didn’t suffer to feed you?  

In January 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor informed Congress that farm workers were “a labor force in significant economic distress.” The report cited farm workers’ “low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, (and) significant periods of un- and underemployment” adding that “agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.”

For agriculture to be sustainable, it must provide a living for those who work our land. Let’s honor the hands that feed us by restoring the dignity of a fair wage to farmers and farm workers.

  • Buy your produce from local farms where you can meet the farm workers and see for yourself if they are treated fairly. The smaller the farm, the more likely they are to treat workers well, and often have only family members working the farm.
  • Support an increase in farm workers wages by joining The Alliance for Fair Food a network of human rights, religious, student, labor, sustainable food and agriculture, environmental and grassroots organizations who work in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
  • A $35 contribution to www.Honoring the Hands.com will help provide health care to Hudson Valley, NY migrant workers and their families, plus a lovely calendar of 12 exemplary culinarians.  

Shawn Dell Joyce is a nationally-syndicated newspaper columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School Montgomery. Shawn@zestoforange.com

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