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Why “Eating Local” Isn’t Enough: Violence Against Female Farmworkers

FarmWorkers

This post is written by Adrienne Lloyd

Farm to table, cage-free, local, organic, sustainably-sourced, humanely-raised. As someone who does my best to be intentional about what I eat and where it comes from, I find myself gravitating towards food label trends and buzzwords such as these. And, they are, of course, not trends without reason: just a quick scan of the Netflix documentary section reveals that you will not be hard-pressed to find films revealing the problematic nature of corporate food chains worldwide. However, with each conversation I have or engage in about ethical and sustainable food systems, it becomes more and more clear that in our discussion about the farm to table journey of our food, we consistently fail to consider a crucial player in this supply chain: the farm workers themselves.

According to a white paper sponsored by the Kresge Foundation, Health-related Inequities Among Hired Farm Workers and the Resurgence of Labor-intensive Agriculture, “America’s 1.8 million hired farm laborers are among the nation’s most vulnerable employees.” Although a majority of hired farm workers are vulnerable to grueling work conditions, low pay and lack of access to healthcare, for women working on farms in the United States, this vulnerability is only intensified in the form of vulnerability to sexual violence.

A recent community study found that 80 percent of female farmworkers interviewed reported experiencing a form of sexual violence at least once while working on the farm. Another study found that 60 percent of the female farmworkers interviewed reported some form of sexual harassment. For context, according to Human Rights Watch, approximately 24 percent of farmworkers are female; about three percent are under 18, many of whom are girls.

Although statistics are hugely important in that they give an idea of how many women and girls are affected, it’s worth thinking further about why women farmworkers are so much more vulnerable to sexual violence in the fields in the first place.

The short answer?

Intersecting vulnerable identities.

The long answer?

Vulnerable Farmworker Identity Characteristics: (Human Rights Watch)

  • 78 percent of farmworkers in the United States are foreign-born.
  • Only 30% of farmworkers report speaking English “well.”
  •  75 percent of farmworkers across the U.S. are unauthorized workers.
  • The average highest grade completed among farmworkers is eight grade.

Vulnerability embedded in the Agricultural Workplace:

  •  Farm work is often in remote areas.
  • Male farmworkers make up well over 75 percent of the farm workforce.
  • The work requires women to bend over and crouch, leaving them more physically vulnerable.
    A majority of field supervisors are men; with the power to hire, fire and assign hours, women are vulnerable to this power imbalance.

These intersecting vulnerable identity characteristics begin to explain why sexual violence against women is so pervasive that the fields are often referred to as the “green motel” or fils de calzón, a phrase that literally translates to “field of panties.” Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, sums this problematic prevalence well: “It’s almost like sexual harassment is part of the job.”

So, next time you’re having a friendly supermarket debate about whether to buy organic or local strawberries, I challenge you to join me in adding a third question to consider: Who picked the strawberries and what is their work environment like? There may not yet be a bright label announcing that the box of strawberries in your hands was picked by women who felt safe in their workplace, but there was also not always a label for organic either until we as consumers spoke up about it.

What does speaking up look like for you? Consider:

  • Starting a conversation at dinner about what food justice means and what groups do not have access to it.
  •  Reading up on organizations doing work around defending female farmworkers’ rights like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Coalition of Imokalee Workers.
  • Adding your voice to amplify the Fair Food campaign, a consumer powered, worker certified movement to ensure safety and justice for all farmworkers.
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