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Strengthening the food chain: Farmers and workers unite, find power in numbers

Bob St. Peter and Juli Perry.
Siena Chrisman, WhyHunger
Bob St. Peter and Juli Perry.

Bob St. Peter and his wife, Juli Perry, farm four acres in coastal Maine, growing vegetables, herbs, flowers, rabbits, chickens, and sheep to feed their family and their neighbors. They grow food in ways that build rich soil, nurture wildlife, and nourish their community. But “at the end of the day," Bob says, “we’ve been bewildered at how hard it is to produce food to feed people.”

Not because of the intrinsic challenges of weather, pests, or the hard work involved, but because of the colossal wall of systemic market forces stacked against the profession of farming -- and especially against farmers starting from scratch who want not to grow commodity crops or sell vegetables to high-end restaurants, but simply to feed people.

Bob’s not the only one fighting this uphill battle; so, too, are the small-scale dairy farmers wondering if each day milking their 40 cows might be the last; ranchers watching their options for a fair price on their cattle dwindle as meatpackers consolidate; farmworkers making sub-poverty wages for backbreaking work in the fields; and food workers unable to take a sick day without fear of losing their jobs.

“I sell my chicken for $4 a pound -- because that’s what it costs me to produce it,” Bob says. “But people think that’s expensive, because you can get chicken at the grocery down the road for 79 cents a pound.”

When Bob looks at the supply chain leading to 79-cents-a-pound chicken, he sees contract poultry growers deep in debt to huge corporations, chickens pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, workers with crippling injuries from keeping up on the poultry processing line, and consumers exposed to increasing food-borne disease outbreaks. When food is sold for prices that ignore these external costs, everyone in the line of production suffers -- and those, like Bob, who are trying to produce food in a way that is good for the land, workers, and local economy, can barely survive.

“As a small farmer,” he says, “I’m competing with a system that produces food based on slavery and exploitation.”

Voting with your fork -- buying chicken raised in ways you believe in, or knowing the name and growing practices of your kale farmer -- helps to support the farmers you’re buying from, but it doesn’t change the challenging context in which they’re struggling to make a living. “Wanting access to healthier food,” as so many people do, Bob says, “isn’t the same as creating the infrastructure to provide it.”

Bob points to a “frontline of people who want to feed the world” rebuilding that infrastructure from scratch -- new farmers like himself, farmers and fishers from old families who fear they will be the last to work the land or the sea, farmworkers and food workers putting in long hours to feed their families. They face many of the same problems -- but as often as not, they are divided against each other. Farmers facing rising costs of fertilizer or equipment look for savings by cutting workers’ wages; farmworkers are under such pressure from farm owners to meet a production quota that they feel they cannot take breaks without fear of losing their jobs.

What if instead they worked together?

Read more: Food

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Why the food movement should occupy Wall Street

Photo: Amy SchneiderI went to the Occupy Wall Street march last week, as part of the NYC food justice delegation. We carried baskets of farmers market vegetables and signs reading "Stop Gambling on Hunger" and "Food Not Bonds." Food justice advocates came out from around the city -- urban farmers, gardeners, youth, professors, union members, and community organizers. The vegetables attracted a lot of attention. Food so often attracts a lot of attention -- The New York Times is just one of the outlets to focus in recent days on the makeshift kitchen at Zuccotti Park. What was more surprising …

Read more: Food