Enjoying that Tomato On Your Sandwich? Don't Forget to Thank a Farmworker

This is Farmworker Awareness Week but how many of us are aware of the critical role farmworkers play in our foodchain?

This is Farmworker Awareness Week but how many of us are aware of the critical role of farmworkers much less aware that there’s even a week dedicated to them? We eat 280 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables a day—from supermarkets, restaurants, cafeterias and fast food establishments. And all of it is picked by hand.

Ironically these workers are among the most abused and poorly paid people in the nation. As longterm farmworker advocate Eva Longoria says, “This is not an immigration issue. This is a human rights issue.”

I’m a filmmaker by profession and in my new film Food Chains to be released later this year, I dig deeper into the injustices in farm labor, after being inspired by an early morning drive in the summer of 2011. I was in south Florida, following my iPhone’s schizophrenic GPS directions as I drove from beachside Ft. Myers to Orlando for a flight back to New York. Rather than take me up the six-lane superhighway, my phone took me on the shortest route– through swampy central Florida. It was dark. I was tired. I didn’t know any better.


After a few hours, I saw the light of a bodega that was just opening. I parked and went inside for some coffee. The interior reminded me of Haiti or Cuba—the shelves were bare. But as in those two countries, the coffee smelled great and I paid and left.

In the parking lot a school bus pulled up and a few dozen Latino farmworkers shuffled inside for the same reasons I did. I was hungry too but didn’t dare experiment with the food the bodega owner was preparing. I don’t think my stomach’s digestive enzymes were up to the task.

In California, where I grew up, I was accustomed to farmworker towns in the Central Valley. The ranchers and supervisors usually live in nicer areas between 10 and 20 miles away from those hamlets. But this was the South, and economic segregation didn’t necessitate geographic separation. Just two blocks from this bodega was a gleaming, bright diner serving people who definitely were not farmworkers.

The end of legal apartheid, the forced segregation between African Americans and whites in the South, didn’t erase economic barriers. And while rich and poor communities are never physically integrated with one another, the geographic boundaries between them can disappear in the South. And here in Central Florida, once home to plantations and then labor camps, the well-off people were not the same color as the poor ones.

The proximity between the bodega and diner was not as glaring a “colored” water foundation next to one for whites. Legally, of course, the farmworkers had a choice. They could quite simply walk up the street, into the diner and expect service. Practically, though, these workers had no choice. A meal at that diner could cost them two to three hours pay as opposed to a half hour’s. This wasn’t legal apartheid. This was in fact economic apartheid—where things were separate and not equal.

It struck me that if the farmworkers I had seen had been African American instead of Latino, I could’ve been in 1911 not 2011. And I guessed that the power dynamic these Latino workers faced in the field was similar to what workers faced 100 years ago.

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