Liberal Education

Food Justice: Combating Racism in the Agricultural System

The living and working conditions of most farmworkers—the people who labor on America’s farms and ranches to produce food—are inadequate. Wages are low; fringe benefits are rare; agriculture is among the most dangerous jobs in the country; the health status of farmworkers and their family members is disproportionately poor; decent housing is in short supply; infrastructure in many farmworker communities is inadequate; many labor and occupational safety laws exclude farmworkers; most public benefits programs exclude many farmworker families due to immigration status; and many social services for which they are eligible do not reach farmworkers.

The agricultural system we have today is steeped in the legacy of plantation culture and settler colonialism. The massive agricultural system in the South was built on the backs of slaves from Africa and their children. After the Civil War, sharecropping and other mechanisms developed to continue exploitation of African Americans in the fields and deprive them of political power. When Congress enacted the minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, and other labor-protective legislation during the 1930s, agricultural employers were exempted, and farmworkers—mostly African Americans—were excluded. (Some protections were provided to farmworkers during the 1960s and 1980s.)

As agriculture developed in California, people of color—from Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, and China—were hired and subjected to discriminatory treatment under the law and to terrible working conditions.

In his bestselling 1939 exposé, Factories in the Field, Carey McWilliams contended that the Great Depression’s “Dustbowl,” which threw thousands of white farmers off their land, would lead to better conditions for California’s exploited farmworkers. He predicted a decline in the political and economic power of agribusiness because the “Okies,” “Arkies,” and “Texicans” who migrated to California were white American citizens, “not another minority alien racial group.”1 McWilliams’s view that the “race problem” had been “largely eliminated” proved premature, however.2 Three years later, as the United States entered World War II, Congress authorized the hiring of large numbers of Mexican guest workers on temporary work permits. The Bracero Program, intended to meet a temporary wartime emergency, did not end until 1964.

As World War II began, a special program was established so that Florida’s sugarcane plantations could employ guest workers from Jamaica. That program, as rife with abuses as the Bracero program, evolved into the current H-2A guest worker program.

Today, there are about 2.5 million farmworkers, not including about 2 million family members, working in the United States. The large majority of farmworkers are members of ethnic minorities. The majority of farmworkers are Mexican American, but there are many Puerto Rican residents employed in agriculture on the mainland, and there are farmworkers who are African American, Native American, Caribbean American, and Asian American. The majority of farmworkers are foreign born, and most of the foreign born lack authorized immigration status.

Agriculture is an economic system that is profit-based and extractive, toward both the land and the people working the fields. Those at the top get their profits—supermarkets, other retailers, transporters, chemical companies—while the grower squeezes profit from the farmworkers.

Workers in agriculture have been systematically disempowered. At the behest of agribusiness, government policy has filled the farm labor force with vulnerable people of color, including slaves, guest workers, and immigrants—undocumented and documented alike—who are viewed as undeserving of the protections afforded native-born white workers. Our labor laws have deprived this vulnerable workforce of protections that are applicable to others, subjecting them to harsh and often dangerous conditions. The drive for profit contributes to the perpetuation of four hundred years of oppressive practices based upon racial privilege.

There have been moments of progress, and university students have often been at the forefront of organized efforts to support farmworker justice. During the 1960s and 1970s, university campuses were sources of support for the organizing drives of the United Farm Workers that led to collective bargaining agreements for tens of thousands of farmworkers and to the 1975 California state law granting farmworkers the right to join a union and bargain collectively. Students supported the Campbell’s Soup boycott led by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee during the 1980s, which resulted in collective bargaining agreements for Midwestern farmworkers at farms supplying several major food processors.

Today, there are many student-driven organizations supporting the farmworker movement, such as the North Carolina–based Student Action with Farmworkers. Students have successfully engaged with their administrators and dining service providers, such as the Bon Appétit Management Company, and in public campaigns by farmworker organizations to address issues in the food supply chain. Along with direct activism, higher education faculty support the food justice movement through scholarly work that integrates the study of agriculture, land, and labor through race, class, and gender perspectives.

There are several projects that seek to improve conditions for farmworkers by reforming business practices in the food industry. In 2011, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers entered into agreement with local tomato growers and several big-name buyers, including McDonald’s and Burger King, that paid farmworkers roughly a penny more for every pound of fruit they harvested and succeeded in raising wages. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was an early funder of this effort. In 2013, the Equitable Food Initiative began implementing a certification system for wages and working conditions, pesticide safety, and food safety that involves retailers, growers, and farmworkers.

There is still much to be done to empower farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, and one of the challenges remains addressing attitudes regarding race that have perpetuated injustices in the fields.


1. Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 306.

2. Ibid., 324.

Bruce Goldstein is president and founding director, and Jessica Felix-Romero is director of communications, both at Farmworker Justice.

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