The People Behind Our Food with Kristin Reynolds
Kristin Reynolds is a faculty member in the Environmental Studies and Food Studies Program at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City. Much of her work centers on urban agriculture and food justice, thinking about food justice as a way to think about the politics and the social constructions that produce inequities in the food system. She’s been involved with a number of different research projects documenting urban agriculture in New York City and also in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently working on a book that focuses on urban agriculture and social justice activism in New York City.
The workers in the food industry are an important aspect of where our food comes from. Reynolds explains current inequities in our system and describes that the solutions are multifaceted, involving more than educated consumers.
Douglas Gayeton: Could you define some examples of the inequities in the food labor industry?
Kristin Reynolds: One example is that of workers in the restaurant industry. A great booklet called “Behind the kitchen door” documented income disparities among restaurant workers. It focused on the fact that white males had by far the highest income levels within the restaurant sector compared to undocumented workers of color coming from different countries who are often very low paid and not able to afford health insurance.
Another example is farm workers. 90 percent of the farm laborers in the United States are immigrants. A great number of those are undocumented, are very low paid and in some cases are actually kept in slavery conditions. This is an example of food injustice that the food justice framework tries to address from a structural level, thinking about the policies related to agriculture, to labor standards and wages, to supermarket siting and some of the social structures that we have in our society that reinforce a lot of these inequities.
Douglas Gayeton: When you look at urban farming, what is the model that you envision?
Kristin Reynolds: One thing about urban agriculture that is often brought up is the idea of feeding the city. It’s important to clarify that urban agriculture practitioners are not attempting to replace the rural food system.
Beyond the productive aspect of urban agriculture, there are many other benefits that aren’t only related to food production and consumption. There are a lot of educational benefits of urban agriculture, including teaching young children about the environment, educating youth about job skills and responsibility and workforce reentry programs for people who have been incarcerated. There can be economic benefits in terms of job creation in communities where there aren’t very many jobs. Organizations are beginning to create jobs that provide a modest salary or stipend that’s very helpful to families that have very low incomes.
Douglas Gayeton: How do consumers make value based purchasing decisions when they buy food?
Kristin Reynolds: I think that those who have higher incomes, have more time available, and live in the right neighborhoods are probably able to access information. That information is less available to folks who don’t have a farmers’ market in their neighborhood, who can’t afford to shop at a farmers’ market, or who don’t live in a city that has a burgeoning food movement. Folks that don’t have the available time, income and geographic access aren’t as able to get that information. But I think it’s also important to note that the educated consumer is not necessarily going to cause all of the changes that need to happen in the food system. To just rely upon people knowing information is to absolve government and the market system from responsibility for providing a more sustainable and a more equitable food system. For example, I’m quite educated about many things in the food system, but there are some things that I wish were different. I can’t just choose to give a farm worker 10 dollars for the strawberries that I purchased, even though I know that those strawberries are probably produced by people who are being underpaid. There is a lot of information out there, but on a broader, structural level we need to be thinking beyond just educating consumers, but also about changing the structure of the food system.
Douglas Gayeton: There have been examples of consumers making industries shift their practices simply by purchasing what they believed in. Do you feel that consumers have that power?
Kristin Reynolds: I do think that consumers have that power. But I’m arguing that sustainability must include justice. The concept of just sustainability is one that includes in the sustainability framework not only the ecological and economic components of the system, but also the social justice components. And so, I agree with you, consumers have been able to leverage changes within our food system, but they haven’t leveraged all of the changes. I don’t believe that the market will make some of those changes without advocacy and pressure. An example of this that does relate to justice is a group called The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that has run a couple of campaigns in conjunction with workers in Immokalee, Florida who have been severely underpaid. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has run boycotts of a couple of different fast foods and grocery chains to put pressure on them to raise their prices by a very modest amount in order to give better wages to the farm workers. So I think that there are isolated instances of consumer pressure making changes in the food system and I think that it’s important to also think about the larger structural issues. So if we think about cage free eggs, we’re also thinking about who’s actually handling those chickens. Are we satisfied as a culture of consumers to have cage-free eggs that are handled by exploited farm workers? The argument that I’m making is that if we’re trying to think about sustainability, we need to encompass all of these aspects, and not just one part of it.