Forty years after Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrrow’s great documentary on the exploitation of migrant workers, the shame endures. Now overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, the nation’s estimated 1.5 million farmworkers, are the most vulnerable laborers in the U.S.
When the land for my suburban Chicago subdivision was bulldozed in the late 1960s, the topsoil was scraped off and sold. Wildflowers and trees were scrapped for landfill. Developers left a blank dirt slate, ready for the new homeowners to chalk the sum of their desires upon it.
Today’s transcontinental head of lettuce, grown in California but eaten in Washington, D.C., is emblematic of our dysfunctional food economy. For every calorie of food energy this lettuce provides, roughly 35 calories of fossil fuel energy will have been burned to grow, harvest, process and ship it. Compare this to 60 years ago when one calorie of fossil fuel produced roughly two and a half calories of food. From the standpoints of energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness, we would be better off drinking the oil.
• Plant lettuce in a window box. Lettuce that you grow yourself does not have to be transported from farm to grocer to home, burning fuel. A home garden can be as simple as a window box and as elaborate as a carefully designed urban plot. (kitchengardeners.org)
Don Charles grips a broadfork, his feet invisible beneath displaced straw from the potato row. The tool is a cross between a rake and a shovel and rises to chest height on most people. Charles bends his 6’7” frame to grip the handles at his waist and plants his weight on the metal beam connecting handles and teeth.
A breakfast frequently served at my son’s school—where over half the children receive government-supported meals—consists of commercially produced French toast sticks and syrup. The list of ingredients on the package for this meal is as long as this paragraph. It includes not only partially hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, but also more mystifying additives like gelatinized wheat starch, calcium caseinate, lecithin, guar gum and cellulose gum. The story of how these items arrive at a school cafeteria and are designated as food is a long and complicated one involving the interaction of farmers, government policy makers and the food industry. The modern story of why we eat what we eat begins in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt faced the challenges of the Depression. He saw that many farmers were poor and that one in every five people in the country was undernourished. Farmers and other Americans were too vulnerable, he believed, to the cycles of boom and bust.