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Eric Schlosser on the People Behind Our Food

When Eric Schlosser pitched Fast Food Nation to publishers in 1999, they balked. No one would buy a food book that didn’t include recipes, they said.

Schlosser eventually found a publisher willing to take the leap and today, 15 years and more than two million copies later, Fast Food Nation has proven that there’s an appetite for powerful investigative reporting about the journey our food takes to get to our plates.

Schlosser, who has since published three nonfiction books and has been working on a book about the American prison system for over a decade, remains connected to the food world. He continues to speak on the issue, and just last year he served as an executive producer of the documentaries Food Chains and Hannah Ranch.

I spoke with Schlosser recently by phone about food workers and the movement for fairness in the food chain. Tonight, he will join Joann Lo from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and food worker leaders in a conversation as part of the Voices of the Food Chain launch at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California.

You’ve spent a lot of your career focused on labor issues. Is there one front where you feel like food workers are winning? Alternately, where are they losing?

I got involved with labor issues in the food system in 1994—that was my introduction to America’s industrialized food system. That was when I followed workers through the strawberry harvest in California. It was my interest in labor issues that lead me to write Fast Food Nation a few years later.

I’m most encouraged by the victories of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida. Because as bad as things were in the strawberry fields of California, what’s been going on in Florida is as bad as anywhere in the United States in terms of the low wages and working conditions, including sexual harassment, and even slavery, in Central Florida.

The ability of this one small farmworker organization to force the food corporations of the U.S. to adopt an enforceable code of conduct has been amazing and encouraging to watch. The CIW is incredibly disciplined, sticks to the facts, and is willing to tolerate defeat after defeat in order to eventually gain victory.

What I am most discouraged about is the exploitation of meat packing workers. I’ve seen no improvement whatsoever in the years since Fast Food Nation came out: the job is much more dangerous. The crackdown on immigrants in the U.S. has only made it more difficult and has only increased the risks for those immigrant workers who want to speak out and protest those conditions.

Why do you think the CIW has been effective in securing victories when other farmworker organizing has not?

I think the CIW recognized how the power structure has changed in American agriculture in the last 30 years. In the era of Cesar Chavez, there was effective organizing against the growers, but in the 21st Century, the real power lies with the multinational corporations which are purchasing these commodities. The growers are increasingly trapped and squeezed by this system as well.

The thing about a right-to-work state like Florida is that it doesn’t have a great tradition of labor unions; the CIW was in a very difficult position in trying to figure out how to help these poor workers. So instead of creating a union—which has become all the more difficult because of the large proportion of immigrant workers in agriculture and the fear that some of these immigrants have of being deported—the CIW decided to go after those with the greatest power: Burger King, McDonalds, Walmart. They have succeeded in a way that other worker groups and other industries can now emulate.

Thirteen years went by between the CIW’s launch of its Campaign for Fair Food and Walmart’s decision to sign on to their Fair Food Program in 2014. And their code of conduct only protects relatively few farmworkers. What do you say to those who say that was a lot of work for not much change?

Well, change has to begin somewhere. Ideally, you’d have the U.S. government on the side of farmworkers simply enforcing the labor laws that exist, increasing the minimum wage, penalizing growers who are engaged in wage theft and companies that are connected to wage theft and minimum wage violations, etc. But in the absence of this, communities are going to have to do it. You can see the triumph of the CIW as a form of community organizing and there’s no reason why communities throughout the U.S. can’t do the same sort of thing.

You have said: “One of the problems with our food system … is it’s ultimately based on the exploitation of poor workers, mainly recent immigrants.” How do you respond to people who say paying food workers fair wages will result in food that is priced out of reach for most Americans?

Well there are two answers: We’re paying the price for this food anyway, it’s just that the price isn’t reflected at the checkout stand. The cost of having this inequality and poverty in our midst is huge. We’re paying for it—not just in quality of life—but in all kinds of services that state and local governments and the federal government have to provide. So this is a way for the agricultural industry to shift its external costs on to the rest of society.

When I did my investigation of the exploitation of farmworkers in the U.S., and did a rough calculation of what it would cost to provide a decent income to every farmworker in the country, I found it would increase the annual food bill of a typical American family by between $35 and $50 a year. So for less than it costs a family of four to go to the movies and buy popcorn, you could eliminate poverty among migrant farmworkers. It’s a solvable problem.

How would you define today’s food movement? Where are you seeing the movement flexing its muscle or having an impact?

The food movement I’m proud of is a subset of a larger movement for social justice in this country. The food movement that is about status—about finding narrow distinctions between olive oils and one-upping one another with obscure ingredients or the latest trend in restaurants—I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever.

I really liked the proposed national food policy Mark Bittman and others put together. I have profound admiration for the success of the CIW. And I have profound admiration as well for Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard and the movement to bring nutrition into the classrooms of the U.S. in a way that is tangible and meaningful. There are so many people whose work I really admire.

What is missing in our national discussion about food?

I think one of the issues that isn’t discussed enough in the context of our food system is racism. I think racism plays a central role in the exploitation of workers throughout the food system. It’s an unpleasant topic, but I think it’s one that we all have to confront to understand why things are as bad as they are at the moment.

The greatest outcry about the exploitation of farmworkers in the U.S. occurred during the only decade in the last century in which most of our farmworkers were white. After the publication of The Grapes of Wrath and the powerful photographs of the farmworkers in California in the Great Depression, there was enormous interest in the plight of farmworkers. But that was really an anomaly. For more than a century, the people who have harvested our food have belonged to racial and ethnic minorities.

When you look at the United States right now, in meatpacking, in farm labor, increasingly in the restaurant industry, you see people of color—and that’s one of the reasons why this society is abusing and exploiting them. That’s a major issue that we need to address. These are the people who feed us.

What do you think of the new, somewhat stricter pesticide exposure regulations the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just passed?

The pesticide regulations to protect farmworkers are absolutely essential. One of the main reasons to eat organic is not because there may be some minor pesticide residue on the food that will harm you, but because farmworkers are being poisoned on a monumental scale. There are thousands of injuries each year due to overexposure to pesticides.

Having the regulations in place is terrific. What’s even more important is enforcement. So many of the consequences of pesticide exposure aren’t apparent for years afterwards. People shouldn’t be poisoned in order to feed us.

Next week is International Food Worker Week. Do you have any suggestions about how readers can help support food workers?

The most important thing we can do is increase the minimum wage so it’s a living wage. Restaurant workers, migrant farmworkers will be helped enormously by this and other low-wage workers throughout the economy will as well. All the wages at the bottom will go up if the minimum wage is increased to $12 or $15 an hour.

Secondly, educate yourself and, to the degree you can, buy food from companies that are treating workers well. Help boycott companies that are treating workers poorly.

The last thing is fight against the demonization of immigrants in this country. Speak out against the demagogues who are trying to get votes by scapegoating some of the poorest and most hard-working people in the United States.

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