Last week in New York City, The New School held its 29th Social Research Conference, “Food and Immigrant Life: The Role of Food in Forced Migration, Migrant Labor, and Re-creating Home.” As described by the New School, the conference “places issues of immigration and food service work in the context of a broader social justice agenda and explores the cultural role food plays in expressing cultural heritage.” I had the opportunity to see talks on injustice in the food system by Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, as well as Saru Jayaraman, founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of Behind the Kitchen Door.
Saru Jayaraman on the poor conditions in which food services workers work:
“Those of us who care about the food system, about a good food system, about food—you have to know that the food system is not just a bad employer—it is the absolute worst employer in America. The food system and the restaurant industry in particular are the worst, statistically worst, lowest paying, providing the least benefits to workers in America and unfortunately, they are also the fastest growing. Which means we’re growing our economy on the backs of the lowest paid, poorest workers in America.”
Dolores Huerta on pesticides:
“There’s the whole issue of pesticides, right? Another problem-making area. All of the pesticides they put on the food. And you know, with the United Farmworkers we were able to ban over a dozen pesticides; we called it the ‘Dirty Dozen.’ Some of these pesticides were so deadly that farmers would just walk into a field and could be dead within 15 minutes. They were so deadly.
“Even though we were able to ban a lot of the pesticides, they were able to make new ones. Let’s call them what they are: economic poisons. That is the legal name for pesticides. Economic poisons. This is a medical issue and we have to get [it] under the auspices of someone that’s really going to test these pesticides and protect us.”
Video of the conference will soon be available on the New School’s website. For more on food and farm workers, check out Workers in the Food System on WhyHunger’s Food Security Learning Center. And before you next eat out, check on the labor practices of your favorite restaurant with the invaluable Restaurant Opportunities Centers Guide to Ethical Eating, available as a PDF and an app!