Book Review: Labor and the Locavore
As you learn more about local foods, it can become easy to fall into the local trap, which can sometimes take the form of greenwashing by businesses that don’t hold themselves to high standards. I was excited to read “Labor and the Locavore: the Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic,” by Margaret Gray to understand better the labor involved in foods marketed as local. Inspired by Julie Guthman’s expose of organic farmers in California in Agrarian Dreams, Gray focuses her research on the Hudson Valley growers in New York, with a goal to “deepen our expectation of what local and alternative agriculture can and should be.” (130) The Hudson Valley has been depicted in the media as a community of hardscrabble farmers bent on preserving ancient farmland and open space. Nonetheless, farmers in that community are challenged by low food prices to keep their workers in low-wage and challenging work conditions. In a section titled “Local Farms: Thriving or Surviving,” Gray captures the “challenges of rising land prices, dwindling community support, competition from overseas, and the high subsidies paid to the country’s largest farms” that ultimately create a downward spiral in profit. (71)
The issue of labor on local farms that cater to a foodie community parallels labor issues on larger farms; ethnicity-based hiring procedures and hiring undocumented workers are both common on farms who want a docile work force. In the Hudson Valley, many of the farm workers are Latino and Jamaican/Haitian workers on guest worker visas, forming a stable supply of labor for farmers and displacing a previously Black labor force. These workers fit the bill for farm managers who need reliable labor that is not prone to dissent, and is somewhat trapped into remaining in a situation where they are not offered pay raises or benefits. The myth of “there aren’t enough local workers” feeds the guest worker program every years, but is easily debunked by farm labor advocates who clarify that there is no shortage of local labor—provided they are offered fair wages and good work conditions. Often, farmers even regard the lack of a surplus as a shortage in agricultural labor.
The conversation on sustainability and local food must involve a person-to-person connection between labor and the consumer; “They Don’t Eat the Workers” is the phrase Gray uses to capture the lack of interest in labor by foodies who are otherwise interested in learning about every detail of their food intake. Gray concludes by reversing Upton Sinclair’s comment about “aiming for the public’s heart and hitting it in the stomach;” she says, “farm worker advocates are now aiming at the public’s stomach in the hope of hitting its heart.” (150) In order to truly develop a movement to change the food system, issues concerning those workers who form the backbone of local farms should be magnified, especially because these workers are not in a position to speak for themselves.
Gray, Margaret. Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic. Berkeley: U of California, 2014.