Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food?: Sermon for October 16, 2011

Posted by admin on October 26, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

If I can start with a little plug for the Fundraising Committee, which has just been doing an excellent job for our fellowship, one of the things you will be able to bid on in our spring service auction will be a sermon topic of your choice. I offer this item every year. Last spring, Joe Kelaghan won the sermon topic. He knew right away what he wanted me to preach on. Joe is a man who puts his values into action.

Joe asked me to preach a sermon which the Rev. Rob Hardies, minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington, had suggested but never had the chance to preach, and it had the same title as this sermon: Is There Room at the Table for the People Who Grow Our Food? Joe takes ethical eating seriously as a vegan, and he is also concerned with the human workers who grow, harvest and process the food we eat.

He tells a story about being in Traverse City, Michigan with his spouse Thad at a family wedding in a vineyard. It was late in the season; the grapes had all been harvested from the vines. No workers were in sight. But for all the homage paid to the beauty of nature and the setting, and all the enjoyment of the food afterward, no mention was made of the human laborers who must have harvested the grapes for the wine and all the food the party enjoyed that day.

The workers who grow and harvest our food are largely invisible. Up here in rural New Hampshire, we are fortunate to have easy access to family farms where we can (if we are willing to pay a premium) buy food grown and harvested by our neighbors. However, even if we choose that option (and we recognize that not everyone can pay the higher prices), we can’t eat New Hampshire-grown vegetables year round. At some point all of us participate in an unfair labor market for getting the food we eat.

How unfair? Take the example of tomatoes. Most of the tomatoes eaten in America are grown in south Florida, on the border of the Everglades, in a climate and location completely unsuited to the growing of tomatoes. The environmental and food safety travesties aren’t our focus here, though, so let’s just consider the workers. Tomatoes, unlike many crops, must be picked by hand. In the name of keeping tomato costs low, some growers have actually enslaved their Central American pickers to force them to pick tomatoes. By 2010, nine slavery cases had been brought against Florida tomato growers for the way they treated their laborers, including forcing them, on pain of physical punishment, to work all day for very little pay, and not allowing escape (Coalition).

The Florida tomato pickers, through a collective bargaining and rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after the region of Florida which is the hub of tomato production, has recently won rights for tomato pickers. The tomato buyers, such as Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC restaurants; Burger King; Subway; McDonald’s; and food service providers such as Sodexho and Aramark; have agreed to support an additional penny per pound in the cost of tomatoes, which is to be passed on to the workers. They have also agreed to buy only from growers which promise to afford their workers basic human dignities like taking breaks twice a day in the shade,  a time clock to ensure they are paid for all the hours they work, and being allowed to use the toilet.

However, one major sector of tomato buyers has refused to sign on to the Immokalee agreement: grocery stores. Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix and even Trader Joe’s have all refused to sign. In a statement, Trader Joe’s said that its refusal to sign stemmed from the technical language of the agreement and not from the substance of more rights for tomato pickers. Of course, that technical language did not stand in the way for major fast food chains and food service providers. Trader Joe’s is a haven for liberal, urban grocery shoppers, but here they are, taking a hard line on fair practices in labor in order to protect their prices and their competitive edge. When it comes to tomatoes, shoppers would be doing more to support workers’ rights by eating at Burger King or McDonald’s than by shopping at Trader Joe’s. The tomato example shows how hard it is, as individuals, to use our purchasing power to influence the greater good. The path from the food in the ground, through the grocery store, to our table is circuitous and far-removed from us. So are the lives of those who grow and harvest it.

Migrant workers are laborers who travel from state to state following the harvest, picking fruits and vegetables for our grocery stores and restaurants. The readings we heard this morning, one a prayer by Cesar Chavez and one an essay by an 11-year-old migrant worker, date from the 1970s, when Chavez’s United Farmworkers Unoin successfully protested the terrible working conditions on California’s large farms. Yet thee conditions persist today, partly because of a surplus of labor owing to immigration, both legal and illegal. According to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, among migrant workers today:

  • 88 percent are men, many of them in the U.S. on their own so that they can send money back to families in their home countries.
  • 55 percent are married. Of those, 71 percent are not living with their spouses.
  • Their mean age is 31. Many start the migrant life in their early 20s and return to their home countries within a few years to live in the homes that were built with U.S. money. “They may return to the United States several more times before they are too old to work such hard jobs.
  • They have a sixth-grade education, on average.
  • 93 percent are foreign-born, up from 88 percent 10 years ago.
  • 65 percent are here illegally, up from 62 percent 10 years ago (“Migrant”).

Migrant workers used to be Americans–think of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. But when hiring Americans came to mean  dealing with a unionized labor force in the 1970s and 1980s, employers and owners were happy to turn to illegal immigrants desperate for a better way of life.

One of the arguments against mass deportation of illegal immigrants is that such a move would cripple our economy, depriving many industries of the labor they rely on. Arizona businesses have pushed back against that state’s efforts to pass ever stricter immigration laws which would imprison undocumented workers. It’s why immigration laws like the one Alabama has just enacted are so insidious, laws which make it illegal for undocumented workers to seek basic services, and which even pressure children who are American citizens to out their parents as undocumented immigrants to the schools. Laws like these threaten to create a permanent underclass of workers here outside the law, not forced to leave, not welcomed in, and not allowed to participate in the basic goods and right of our society.

Or perhaps this underclass already exists. Although the people occupying it have changed, the existence of a group of poorly treated people who pick our agriculture has always been with us. In the colonial era they were indentured servants. In the early decades of our nation they were African American slaves. Then they were sharecroppers like the Joads, strapped to the land by crushing debt. Now they are illegal immigrants. We have never wanted to create the society necessary to pay agricultural workers a living wage.

Joe Kelaghan, in talking to me about this sermon, told the story of getting pizza at a pizzeria in Norway during a vacation once. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, just a place to grab a pizza and a beer. It wasn’t that much different from Pizza Hut. The big difference was that the pizza cost $40 and the beer $15. Norway has organized its economy so that the workers all along the line of the pizza’s creation are paid a living wage. And they’ve put social safety nets into place to help those in need buy food–even if those in need can’t go out to eat pizza. In such a system, local farms would be more competitive, and home gardening might become more attractive. Our economic system, in which food subsidies for the poor are meager and the gap between the rich and the poor is vast, relies upon labor so cheap it is almost free to tend, pick and often serve our food.

We sing a hymn which begins, “Earth was given as a garden…” In the ancient myth of the garden of Eden, told two ways in the Hebrew Bible, the first humans are given the earth to tend and work. God gives them instructions: in one version of the story, God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food (Gen. 1:29).” Even after Adam and Eve have been expelled from the garden, God cures Adam with working the land by the sweat of his brow. Neither in paradise or out of it, in this founding myth of Judaism and Christianity, are people given the fruits of the earth by the labor of other hands. Buddhism exhorts us to recognize the sacred nature in all living things, and certainly in other people. Islam demands fair treatment of members of the community, one of the most sacred concepts of that faith. All the world’s major religions demand fair treatment of one another and stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

These are hard questions, but our commitments as Unitarian Universalists require us to grapple with them. Part of what we affirm as Unitarian Universalists is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Having inherent worth and dignity means that a person should not be condemned because of the honest work which occupies her days. The right of the democratic process means workers should have the right to organize and work together for greater justice in the workplace. Honoring the interdependent web of all existence means that we acknowledge how we are tied to migrant workers in American fields, even if we have never done that work; even if we never know them; even if they are Central American; even if they have come to this country illegally. Our Unitarian Universalism requires us to see in these workers a common humanity with us, a common human spirit and dignity which cannot be bartered away. May we work toward a social system where the labor of all is given fair value.

Please join me in a Blessing Prayer, used by the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Bless the hands of the people of the earth,
The hands that plant the seed,
The hands that bind the harvest,
The hands that carry the burden of life.

Soften the hands of the oppressor and
Strengthen the hands of the oppressed.

Bless the hands of the workers,
Bless the hands of those in power above them
That the measure they deal will be tempered
With justice and compassion. Amen.


All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

“Blessing Prayer.” National Farm Worker Ministry. Accessed 15 Oct. 2011.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “CIW Anti-Slavery Campaign.” Accessed 14 Oct. 2011.

“Migrant Labor in the United States.” Politics and Economy: On the Border. Now. 28 May 2004. Public Broadcasting System. Accessed 14 Oct. 2011.

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