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CLF Brings Public Health Lens to Just Food Forum

By: Carolyn Hricko

The morning of April 1 greeted us with freezing rain, slush-covered sidewalks and a forecast of snow throughout the day. This was not a mean-spirited April Fools’ Day joke, just spring in New England. Claire Fitch and I were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to participate in the third annual “Just Food?” forum at Harvard Law School. This year’s event, a collaboration between the Harvard Law School Food Law Society and the Harvard Food Literacy Project and cosponsored by the Food Law and Policy Clinic, was focused on labor across the food system. The forum featured about 30 speakers, lunchtime documentary film screenings, and session topics ranging from agricultural worker rights and wages in the restaurant industry to regulatory and market driven models for reform.

We arrived at the law school equipped with copies of our new report, “Public Health, Immigration Reform and Food System Change,” in preparation for its unveiling at Claire’s morning presentation on food production, risk and immigrant labor. In a forum largely composed of legal and human rights perspectives, our evidence-driven public health case for immigration reform provided a new framing and justification for addressing labor issues in food production and processing.

In her presentation, Claire described the many health risks imposed on immigrant food production and processing workers, including pesticide exposure, injuries, poor air quality, contact with animal waste, and exposure to pathogens. She also noted that undocumented, immigrant workers and their families are particularly vulnerable due to poor quality housing, frequent migration, lack of access to healthcare, language barriers, and fear of job loss or deportations. Much of this information wasn’t new to the worker justice organizations at the conference, but Claire’s detailed synthesis of these wide-ranging concerns in her presentation, and in our report, was uniquely comprehensive.

The presentation also introduced the need for worker protections, arguing that these protections are critical for not only the wellbeing of those producing our food, but also for the overall health and security of the US food system. As Claire stated in her presentation, the US food supply is insecure and susceptible to shocks as long as it relies on an impermanent, underrepresented, and at-risk workforce. This argument fit neatly into the context of the forum, which sought to bring attention to often-overlooked food system workers. We aimed to both shine a light on the multitude of challenges facing immigrant workers and shift the debate on immigration reform from one in which undocumented workers are vilified to one that acknowledges our country’s daily reliance on an estimated 1 to 1.5 million undocumented farmworkers.

Our day was bookended by two keynote speakers: Sheila Maddali, Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Philadelphia and Co-Director of the Tipped Worker Resource Center, and Steve Hitov, General Counsel of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They spoke passionately about their work to create a more equitable, safe, and just food system, especially for those who grow, harvest, prepare and serve our food. Among the many issues Sheila Maddali highlighted were the low wages (the $2.13 base wage for tipped labor hasn’t increased in over 25 years) and pervasive sexual harassment (90 percent of surveyed workers reported experiencing sexual harassment) in the restaurant worker sector—the largest private sector employer and second largest and fastest growing sector of the US economy. Later, we heard from Steve Hitov about the fight to end abuse and modern day slavery on US farms. While they described different approaches – regulatory versus market driven – to creating a more equitable, sustainable food system, they both emphasized the challenge of working against the consolidation of industries and the corporate concentration of economic and political power. But as Steve Hitov reminded the conference participants, “Corporations are not moral, and they’re not immoral. They are amoral. It’s all about the money.”

I repeat his statement here not to demonize corporations, but to convey one of the conference’s messages: we need to work within rather than against our economic structure if we are to realize positive changes in our food system, particularly in the near term. This does not mean that organizations should take an “either/or” stance regarding market driven initiatives and regulation, but can instead use a multi-modal approach that uses market incentives for good corporate behavior while fostering a policy environment conducive to broader reform. As an example, our food system will be at risk as long as the need for comprehensive immigration reform goes unresolved. In the long march toward, and in the absence of, this comprehensive reform, we will continue to advocate for shorter-term regulatory actions while engaging in market-driven efforts that, together, address the immediate need for protections for workers, and therefore, our food system.

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