Columnist Claire Morenon: Inequities in our local food system

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 23, 2018, by Claire Morenon

At Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, we talk often about our local food system, which refers to the regional web of businesses, markets, and people who produce, process, transport, prepare and eat local food.

Here in the Connecticut River Valley, we’re blessed with excellent farmland and a vibrant network of food businesses and engaged shoppers. Our local food system has been strengthened by years of work from advocates, businesspeople and policymakers.

But as much as we celebrate the successes and strengths of our local food system, we must acknowledge the inequities built into it, including widespread hunger, unequal access to farmland and business opportunities and troubling circumstances for farm workers. Our local food system doesn’t exist in isolation from the larger world, and our current structures don’t exist in isolation from our nation’s history.

The price of food is one of the defining characteristics of the United States food system, and it has an enormous impact on local farmers and workers. Americans spend less on food as a percentage of income than anyone else in the world, and that percentage has fallen by 45 percent in the last 55 years.

This might seem like good news in a nation where 12 percent of the population struggles with hunger, but these low prices are possible because of costs that are borne elsewhere, including environmentally damaging growing practices and exploitative labor practices. Many local farmers are acutely aware of the tension between wanting to pay fair wages to their employees and needing to compete on price with food produced in a global system that doesn’t value the environment or workers.

U.S. food production is dependent on immigrant and undocumented workers. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 72 percent of all farmworkers nationwide are foreign-born, and 46 percent are undocumented.

This is not a new circumstance: following on the heels of slavery and the sharecropping system came decades of federal “guest worker” programs. The most famous of these was the Bracero Program, which brought an average of 200,000 farmworkers from Mexico per year between 1942 and 1964. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, approximately 2 million Mexican farmers have lost their land, which has had an enormous impact on migration to the U.S.

Here in Massachusetts, there’s not much data on the makeup of the state’s agricultural workforce or on working conditions, although the 2006-2010 American Community Survey estimates that 33 percent of agricultural workers living in Massachusetts are non-citizens. Last fall, in a widely reported event, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained three farmworkers who were on their way home from work in Hatfield, and we hear that many local farmworkers are fearful and owners are concerned.

The Northeast doesn’t exist apart from the current plight of undocumented workers, from the history that has shaped the national data on farm labor, or from pricing structures that don’t allow for fair wages.

Another reality of our local food system that must be understood in the context of our national and regional history is land ownership and access. In study after study, new farmers cite land access as their biggest challenge. Recognizing that land access is a challenge for all new farmers, however, can obscure the fact that people of color have been denied access to land for generations. Today, people of color own less than 1 percent of the farmland in Massachusetts despite making up 18 percent of the state’s population.

This racial discrepancy isn’t spontaneous or mysterious. It’s based on a long and complex history of discrimination, starting with the genocide of native people and generations of stolen labor in the form of slavery and sharecropping, continuing through a long history of discrimination in lending and government agricultural programs, and maintained today in discriminatory employment practices and pay discrepancies. Together, this history has made it harder for people of color to buy and hold on to land and homes.

One group of leaders to watch is a network of activists organizing in the Northeast who have built a Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map to encourage person-to-person reparations, and who are now working to create a land trust that will make land available to farmers of color.

These issues are complex and painful, and there are no simple solutions. For many marginalized people, this isn’t new information. For others, the first step is to accept that even a localized food system, with all of the possibilities and hope inherent in that concept, is bound to the challenges and inequities of our larger world.

Only with that understanding, and a shared sense of history, will the vision of a truly resilient, inclusive and equitable local food system be possible.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.