This morning, after a night of merriment and tom-foolery, I woke up at 8am and drowsily dressed myself for a field trip. I ate some koala puffs and honey’d corn flakes with organic soy milk, brushed my teeth, and loaded into a car with 4 fellow Carleton Students. We were headed to a farm-worker camp about 30 miles away in Owatanna, MN with a group of students from the University of Minnesota.
Upon arrival, we stepped out into the freezing rain, zipped our down jackets up to our chinny chin chins, and learned about the living and working conditions for migrant workers in Southern Minnesota. I have seen the documentary The Harvest and read about the injustices in the field, but this was the first time that the migrant worker experience hit so close to home.
Every May, migrant workers leave their homes in Southern Texas and come to southern Minnesota to work at one of the many canning factories. Since there are little job opportunities back home, this summer journey is a main source of income for many of these families. Factory-owned farm-worker camps ensure that families will have a place to stay after the long journey. There are federal regulations to enforce human rights at these camps, but they are not evident when you are walking through the camp. A chain-link fence surrounds twelve ramshackle housing units, a men’s and a women’s public bathroom, and a more pleasant area with swing sets and picnic tables. The “housing units” are divided in half so that two families can occupy each one. Each family unit has a larger main room with a kitchen and space for a bed and one small room, separated from the kitchen by a curtain. They have concrete floors, old sullied furniture, and hazardous looking appliances.
The leader of the field trip explained the hardships that these farm-workers face– they work 12 hour shifts (either from 6AM-6PM or 6PM-6AM), they are paid far below minimum wage (in this case $5.50 an hour), and they are at the mercy of the company. Centro Campesino is one of the first and only Latino migrant worker initiated and operated organizations in the country. Their goal is to unite migrant farm workers in Southern Minnesota in their struggle for better living and working conditions. Before the organization was formed, outside groups had tried to help make improvements like establishing a day-care program for the children at the camps, constructing a tornado shelter, and installing shower partitions in the public bathrooms, but the factory would not allow it. By banding together, the workers have been able to find some success– a day care program is now in place and they have built a tornado shelter– and they will continue to work for improvements.
Migrant farm-workers in Minnesota are also faced with anti-migrant sentiment when they arrive every season. One of the founding organizers for Centro Campesino used Montgomery, MN as an example of this racism. After they noticed that the migrant workers would often cook and gather in their parks, Montgomery residents established a 10PM curfew, locked all of the public park bathrooms, and created a law that more than three people were gathered in a public space they could be charged with loitering. It didn’t stop there, government leaders in Montgomery then used eminent domain to requisition the 6 migrant worker trailers from Seneca Foods right before the start of a new season. Although the city proposed plans to use the space for economic development, the trailers sat empty all summer while the farm workers resorted to sleeping in their cars. When organizations worked to create alternative affordable housing, the contract was ripped to shreds by when the man that owned the land for the development found out it would be a place for migrant workers to stay. In the local newspaper, a women wrote a letter to the editor that claimed “she would rather live in a ghost town than a town full of migrants.”
This field trip gave me a real glimpse at one of the major problems in our food system: farm worker rights. How much more consumer conscious is a vegan that is eating corn or peas that were packaged under these conditions than a carnivore that is eating a CAFO-produced beef burger? Animal rights activists criticize our food system for treating animals as “units of production”, while at these factories, workers are treated as “units of production” too. I can’t tilt my head back and eat grapes while these injustices are happening. My vegan term will end in a few days. Although voting with my fork and treating myself to organic, fair-trade vegan food has been tasty, I feel like I am not promoting any sort of change in the real food system, the one that the majority of the population does not have the choice to opt out of. I am ready to tilt my head forward again, to experience these injustices, and start throwing those grapes at people in order to make change.
*Upon further evaluation on the effectiveness of grape-throwing, my strategy may be amended.