Man hunched over picking crops in an arid field.

A Sustainable System?

I live and work in California, the farming capital of the world; hub of agriculture, intersecting food, chefs, and farmers. It is the state that produces the most food in the country, home to the world’s smallest and largest organic farms, and boasts the greatest diversity in farming systems and farm workers. Yet the lack of food and agricultural literacy is tremendous, and the bond between the farm worker and the eater is ill understood.

Central San Joaquin Valley is the modern day fertile crescent that lays its swath between Stanislaus and Kern. The Valley produces most of the country's, nuts, plums, peaches, and grapes and its dairy industry is one of the largest in the world. Vegetables of every variety spring forth and grace tables across our globe.

The roots of California farming began with the dust bowl of the 1930’s as a wave of white disenfranchised farmers traveled to escape economic and ecological disaster.  The Valley has drawn “cheap” labor from those first dust bowl farmers to modern day Latinos who have planted, picked, packed, and served our food.  And with the overuse of toxic chemicals, corporate consolidated land-holdings, and a lack of representation for rural constituents, we’ve called into question not only deep environmental and ecological concerns but social ramifications around the safety, comfort, and opportunities for these farm workers and their families.

Travel to out of the way junctions of Shafter, Dinuba, Delano, or Taft to witness the plight of our modern-day farm workers. Many people who harvest our food in the Central Valley do not have access to adequate housing, clean water, bathrooms, natural gas, heat, health insurance, sick days, holidays, or paid family leave. They endure pesticide exposure, cancer clusters, and birth defects. Arsenic, nitrates, and chromium taint their water supply, an existence fraught with workplace perils, possible deep-seated health issues under a threat of deportation of self and family members. A hard life for those who help fill our cupboards, fraught with perils that no one need endure.

This is a matter of the heart, of food justice.

When families must decide between buying bottles of safe water or canisters of gas to heat their living spaces things have gone awry. When these families, surrounded by delicious crops, live in a food desert with no access to the very same crops they harvest the irony runs deep.

Those who feed us are kindred souls.  I ask myself; how can this still be happening? Must our quest for cheap food support this kind of human inequality and suffering?  How do we change the tides?

Access to agricultural-based land is one key to helping farm workers. I am proud that the UNFI Foundation supports the efforts of organizations such as Agricultural Land Based Training Association (ALBA). ALBA supports low-income farm workers through a 5-year Farmer Education program, which helps develop skills to prepare them to launch farm businesses and grow new organic farms. 

Another grant recipient of the UNFI Foundation that serves aspiring farm workers with access to land is California Farm Link. They link independent farmers with land and financing to create a sustainable future. They even have a program that connects agrarian elders to future farmers helping pass the torch of sustainable land stewardship.

The Community Alliance for Agroecology works alongside the most impacted communities of the San Joaquin Valley to address the environmental injustices perpetuated by the food and farming system while creating solutions that foster ecological balance, public health, and economic equality in the region.

Let us not forget those who plant, harvest, pack, ship, and prepare our food.

The good food movement must embrace basic human equity as a component of our cause. Agriculture can shrug off the shackles of ‘business as usual’ if we demand it through our purchases.

Urban communities must contemplate this dilemma when they choose their grapes, apples, pistachios, or pears. It is an education of the plate; build the connection, what’s the system of choice and equality? Are you perpetuating change through your purchase of food? Are the hidden costs of cheap food too dear a price to pay in the grand human scheme?

When we honor our farm workers with potable water, warmth and shade when needed, a safe environment with healthy options, we do not lose sight of our respect for each other and ourselves.

Eat well and remember those that harvested to bring that food to your table.

Support change through your choices.

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog www.organicmattersblog.com covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture  www.unfifoundation.org. Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association www.ota.com.

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