Local Food and Local Inequality

by Margaret Gray

The burgeoning local food movement comes with a promotional promise: buying direct from the farmer seals a bond of intimacy, offers fresher and tastier products, and is more wholesome than the industrial commodity system. But consumers learn little about the poverty and marginalization of the farmworkers who plant, tend, and harvest their food.

Food writers’ glorification of local food systems has masked the wages, conditions, vulnerability, and fear of the mostly non-citizen workers who are so vital to the industry. In New York’s Hudson Valley, a thriving local food hub that hosts scenic beauty and agrarian nostalgia, the workers I interviewed described low wages, long hours, extreme weather, speed-up, and exploitation at the hands of their employers. One field hand told me he thought the farm dogs were treated better.

In New York, as in most states, farmers are not required to pay overtime or offer a day of rest, and agricultural workers are not covered by collective bargaining. Under the law, an employer can have their workers toil 85-hour workweeks at minimum wage. The interviews I conducted with workers, and farmers, and government officials show that this is not simply a case of labor abuse, but rather state-sanctioned exploitation.

Labor and the Locavore lays bare the power systems that underpin the appeal of local food. The same intimacy that local food promotes between farmers and consumers colors the relationships that farmers have with workers. On these small, family farms, paternalism becomes a key mechanism for labor control.

The workers seldom complain and often return year after year due to their fear of lost wages and deportation. As Miguel, one of my interviewees, summarized the general acceptance of his situation: “If you behave, there is work.”

 

Margaret Gray is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adelphi University. Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic is the winner of the 2014 Book of the Year Award from the Association for the Study of Food and Society.