CW: Racism, slavery, exploitation, sexual abuse
On October 25th, Wesleyan Real Food Challenge along with campuses across the nation dropped a banner in Usdan declaring that “Racism is in our Food System.” In solidarity with food workers across the nation and globe, we condemn the historical and continual exploitation of food workers. Food workers are laborers in the food supply chain such as farm workers, people that work in food processing plants, and workers in food service. The purpose of this banner drop is to challenge the Wesleyan community to question the role that structural racism has played in our food system historically; and recognize that racialized structures still stand in our food system today. Food workers are the backbone of our global food system, yet they remain invisible to the public. At the dining table, supermarket, in restaurants, and on social media, food is presented as abundant and visually stunning, but hidden behind this presentation is an uglier reality.
The American food system is built upon the plantation slavery model of agriculture. From the 1600-1800s, farm workers were predominantly enslaved black and brown folks. Forced to work up to 18 hours a day, in extreme heat, workers were also subject to physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, workers continue to struggle in similar exploitative conditions today. It is estimated that 50-70% of farm workers today are undocumented immigrants. Many of these workers are subject to wage theft, physical, mental, and sexual abuses, and dangerous working conditions which can produce an array of health problems. Farm work is one of the top ten most dangerous occupations in the US, yet the annual salary of farm workers was estimated to be $10,200 in 2014–below the federal poverty line of $11,670. In addition, because half of our farmworkers are undocumented, they do not have access to social services such as food stamps or Medicaid. Workers are also often unable to unionize and fight against these abuses for fear of losing their jobs, or deportation.
One way that we as consumers, can fight this exploitative system is by changing the way institutions buy food, through our purchasing power. Instead of buying from brands such as Driscoll’s and Dole–companies which have a history of, and ongoing practices of worker exploitation–we may buy from other brands or local farmers, if we have the privilege of doing so. For communities in food deserts, which are also predominantly low-income communities of color, buying local and choosing alternative brands may not be an option, as the selection of food is limited. However, as students at Wesleyan, we have the privilege of accessing a wide range of fruits and vegetables, local produce, and ready-made meals. We can utilize this privilege to create change on campus, and in doing so instigate change in the food supply chain beyond the Wesleyan bubble.
Wesleyan Real Food Challenge leverages the university’s buying power to tackle the unfair practices of corporate food systems at an institutional level. As part of a national campaign across college campuses, the goal of Real Food Challenge is to shift annually, 1 billion in university dollars to purchases of “real food”–food that is either local, ecological, humane, or fair trade. 26% of Wesleyan’s food is currently considered real. All of Wesleyan’s tomatoes, bananas, and coffee are fair trade. While we applaud these achievements, there is also still work to be done. We need to continue making these product shifts and influencing other institutions to do so as well. Small changes in institutional purchasing translate into large economic demand for real food. And even though Wesleyan and campuses across the nation have made strides in real food, corporate agriculture still institutionalizes racist practices.
Thus, in addition to influencing institutional change, and utilizing our purchasing power as consumers, we must also take other forms of action. In this era, food is trendier than ever–with thirty second “Tasty” videos on Facebook garnering hundreds of thousands of views, and Instagram accounts dedicated to worshipping the aesthetics of food. We can use this platform to dig deeper into the food system, and expose the social injustices being inflicted upon the people producing our food by the corporate food regime. We can educate ourselves on food justice–food access, food security, and workers’ rights. We must condemn structural racism, white supremacy, and practices that exploit and oppress the bodies of migrants, people of color, and low-income individuals. We need to stand in solidarity with workers and underserved communities as they fight for justice, and make conscious decisions with our power as consumers when we eat. Action and resistance can be as simple as thinking about who made the food we’re eating and how it got to us in the first place; or it can be standing in the frontlines of a protest with our undocumented brothers and sisters. Whatever form of action we take, together, we can change the exploitative practices of the corporate food regime, and fight for justice in our food system.