Thanksgiving 2013

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From Gratitude To Action

November 27, 2013


Thanksgiving 2013 



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Every year at Thanksgiving I am reminded of the people who grow and harvest our food.  I am constantly immersed in research on the food system and the people who work in it but thinking about the food on my table and how it got there is especially poignant at feast time.  In California we are blessed with abundant year round locally grown nuts, meats, grains, fruits and vegetables.  The farmers and hired workers who labor to produce this food that feeds our nation do so under challenging conditions. 

I for one am glad there are independent and creative farmers and ranchers who have survived all the economic downturns and caveats of the local, national and international markets, the stress of unpredictable weather and potential pests.  I value those farmers who provide jobs and care for their employees, understanding the value of the human being as an honorable and skilled worker, not a tool, in their fields.


I express gratitude at this time for those who are sacrificing themselves for my benefit. 


While I eat my Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes I will think about the people who worked hard all year for this one harvest.  This pay day.  This day of feasting.  And I will remember who they are.  I know the farmers who grew the sweet potatoes and who produced the olive oil I will use to feed my family and friends gathered at my table. I know the man who raised my turkey, the woman whose chickens provide me with eggs.  I have spoken and worked side by side with some of the farm workers who harvested the fruit for my pies.  But who are these people and what are their lives like?

Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US.  During the period 2008-2010, hired farm workers were five times more likely to die from an injury at work than were all civilian workers COMBINED.  [i] Add to this alarming statistic the low wages for producing a life-giving necessity and one might wonder why anyone still works tilling and harvesting at all. 

Putting aside the risks of work, farm workers suffer disproportionately from other health challenges as well with fewer resources and little or no access to health care.  Many farm workers also lack access to the healthy food they work to produce.  One study done by CIRS in Fresno County, the most productive agricultural county in the US, found that 45% of the farm workers we interviewed were food insecure.  In Salinas, America’s Salad Bowl, that percentage was even higher at 66%.[ii]  This lack of access to resources is fueled by both economic and geographic disparities.

There are estimated to be three million migrant and seasonal farm workers at any given time in the United States. Average yearly wages hover around $15,000.  Many workers are working to support family members left behind in their home countries.  Living in the US is not easy for them.  Many come with their families and their kids work side by side with them performing hard labor for low wages to help support their family.  Children as young as 11 years old can legally work on farms for wages.[iii]


In 2011, Phil Martin an economist from UC, Davis, wrote in the New York Times [i] about raising wages for farm workers by 40%. That’s the kind of raise we all dream of!  He explained the ultimate impact this wage increase for farm workers would have on our household budgets.   “For a typical household, a 40 percent increase in farm labor costs translates into a 3.6 percent increase in retail prices. If farm wages rose 40 percent, and this wage increase were passed on to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables would rise about $15 a year.”  

Poverty may explain why housing conditions for farm workers have long been substandard and there has not been any improvement in recent years. But it’s more complex than that.  Despite an increased demand for hired farm laborers, farmers have become less likely to provide housing for them. It’s a challenge to do so and many farmers have no desire to also be landlords. The foreign-born share of the U.S. farm labor force has doubled within the past four decades. During that same time period, there has been a substantial decline in employer-provided housing for farm laborers, especially for those employed on a seasonal basis. The factors responsible for this housing decline include an employer response to strict regulations, the increase of farm labor contractors and the Latinization of rural America.[ii]

Federal, state, and local housing development policies need to be enacted that encourage creation of farm worker housing. Agencies responsible for enforcing fair housing laws need to have the authority, motivation and resources available to prevent substandard conditions. Long-term financial commitments are needed in order to develop new housing and improve existing housing quality. Government agencies can encourage the formation of coalitions to develop cooperative housing specifically for the agricultural worker population. Trust funds can be generated in a number of creative ways with funding earmarked for farm worker housing.

But a stable, renewable source of funds needs to exist at all levels of government for affordable housing in rural regions. This development will only occur when policy is developed to address these issues.

If you care about a sustainable food system, you should care about where the workers who produce your food live.

Edward R. Murrow aired his final documentary for the CBS series, CBS Reports following the national day of Thanksgiving in 1960.  Just like now, this was a fitting time to discuss the workers who grow food in farm fields of America.  The producer of “Harvest of Shame” stated, “We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation."[iii]

Murrow closed his final CBS broadcast in this way. “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do." [iv]

While today there are fewer migrants working in our fields, farm workers, members of our communities, still have little ability to influence legislation.  But those of us who eat (all of us) have the ability to change our choices in the market place.  We have the power to change conditions on the ground.  We can improve the lives of rural communities across the board but we have to be willing to pay for these improvements. 

The living conditions faced by farm laborers in the U.S. expose the shame of geographic and economic inequity experienced by rural regions as a whole. And, yes, these conditions exist in our Golden State. As long as the people who work in the fields where our food is produced live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, our food system will never be sustainable. [v]

My questions on this Thanksgiving holiday, 53 years after the airing of Murrow’s classic, are:

  • ·       Do we have the will to influence legislation? 
  • ·       Are we willing to pay more for our food in order to improve the lives of those who grow and harvest what we eat on our holiday tables?  
  • ·       Is $15 more a year too much to spend to bring workers out of poverty? 

This year, over your Thanksgiving feast, I ask you, how much is it worth to you to create a sustainable future for rural California?


Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones!

Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director

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[i] Martin, P.  2011.” Calculating the Costs and Benefits of a Raise for Field Workers.”  New York Times, September 30, 2011.

[ii] Villarejo, D. 2011. “What is the Status of Rural California Today?”  Rural California Report, California Institute for Rural Studies.

[iv] CBS News. 1960.  “CBS Reports: Harvest of Shame.”  Executive Producers Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly.

[i] Villarejo, D.  2012.  “Health Inequities among Hired Farm Workers and the Resurgence of Labor Intensive Agriculture.”  Kresge Foundation White Paper.

[ii] Worth, C., Strochlic, R., Getz, C.  2007. “Hunger in the Fields:  Food Insecurity among Farm Workers in Fresno County.”  California Institute for Rural Studies.

Kresge, L. and Eastman, C.  2010.  “Increasing Food Security among Agricultural Workers in California’s Salinas Valley.”  California Institute for Rural Studies.

[iii] Child Labor Requirements  In Agricultural Occupations Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (Child Labor Bulletin 102). 2007.






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