Author and journalist Eric Schlosser discussed mistreatment of the poor laborers who power the food industry in a sold-out lecture in Cohen Auditorium Tuesday night.
The talk was part of Tufts Hillel’s Moral Voices Merrin Distinguished Lecture Series, which this year is focusing on food justice. Junior Rose Pollard, who chaired the committee organizing the program, introduced Schlosser by referencing the impact his 2001 book, “Fast Food Nation,” had on the rise of the food movement during the last decade.
“This book helped start a revolution about how Americans think about what they eat,” Pollard said.
However, Schlosser had not come to talk about organic food or abuse of livestock, although he acknowledged these as important aspects of food justice.
“The injustices in today’s food system are merely symptoms, and they cannot be understood and they cannot be changed without addressing the underlying problems,” Schlosser said.
Schlosser’s focus throughout the talk was the racism, poverty and the unchecked corporate power surrounding the treatment of workers on the produce farms and in the slaughterhouses that feed America.
“Discussions about sustainability usually neglect to mention human beings and human rights,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves as a society why is it we seem to care more about the animals we eat than about the poor people that feed us.”
His concern with the abuse of food industry workers began in the early 1990s as Californian politicians were decrying undocumented immigrants as “parasites.” Schlosser started examining the role immigrants play in California’s economy, eventually following strawberry harvesters for a full year.
“It totally opened my eyes to see where food is coming from,” he said.
What Schlosser found, he said, was systemic mistreatment of workers. The workers, whose labor is necessary if Americans want to eat healthier, were forced to pick every strawberry by hand, he said.
Schlosser explained that the California farms were profiting enormously from undocumented immigrants, who were paid minimum wage off the books and could be fired at a moment’s notice.
“They liked hiring illegal immigrants who were usually fearful, unlikely to protest, unlikely to approach state authorities over violations of the labor code,” he said.
Another problem included routine sexual abuse of female farm workers, who were scared to complain and get fired. In fact, Schlosser said the growers’ power over their employees has increased, as a fear of being fired has grown into a fear of deportation.
“It’s actually gotten worse, and one of the things that’s made it worse is the immigration crackdown in this country,” he said.
He said the immigrants, many of whom had Native American heritage and could not speak Spanish, much less English, were “extremely industrious, hard workers [and] easy to exploit.”
The workers Schlosser spoke with were often living cramped in small apartments, and even caves, cars and garages. According to Schlosser, a sixth of the population of Soledad, Cal. lives in garages during the harvest. Yet, the undocumented immigrants of the area are criticized and condemned.
“We’re not talking about homeless, lazy drug addicts. We’re talking about workers harvesting the healthiest food we can eat, living in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world,” Schlosser said. “And all of us are connected to these workers every time we bite into fresh fruit, fresh vegetables.”
Many similar abuses can be found in the meatpacking industry, a world Schlosser explored in his book “Fast Food Nation.”
“The type of exploitation that had been going on for decades in the fields of California was coming to the factories of the Midwest,” he said. “Every single one of us who eats meat is connected to these workers with every single bite.”
Since Schlosser’s article about the strawberry pickers and his follow-up study of slaughterhouse workers in “Fast Food Nation,” were published, he said, the problem has only worsened. According to Schlosser, wages in the California grape industry are currently lower than in the early 1960s, when activist Cesar Chavez mobilized the farm workers to hold hunger strikes for higher wages.
Racism is behind this systemic abuse, Schlosser asserted.
“These people look different from the mainstream … and we allow this to be done to them,” he said. “The food that we eat is too often and has too often been made possible by someone else’s misery, and that someone else is usually not white.”
Of slaughterhouse workers, Schlosser found that 80 percent were Latino and 26 percent were undocumented. The work is “bloody, smelly, horrific,” he described, and injuries are three times as common as in other kinds of factories. When workers are injured – or try to form unions – they are usually fired.
Citing brutal statistics, including that people in poverty are twice as likely to be obese than well-off Americans and that those who are obese are two-thirds more likely to die young, Schlosser painted a grim picture of the state of “food justice” in America. Change is possible, he said, but the availability of organic food and increasing farmers’ markets is not enough.
“The measure of this food movement cannot just be how the educated upper middle class now lives,” Schlosser said. “The truth is, the wealthy will always eat well. It’s the poor and working class people in this country who really need a new food system.”
Instead, the focus must be on improving conditions for food workers and the American poor.
“We need to increase the minimum wage in this country,” Schlosser said. “We need to fight against every manifestation of racism and intolerance in this country.”
Shakura Cox, a freshman who attended the lecture, said she came away inspired.
“I wasn’t expecting to hear about the workers that much … I didn’t realize how horrific the conditions were,” Cox said. “I really feel like I want to make a change.”