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These Hands

December 26, 2007

This video, called With These Hands I Demand the Future (Con estas manos demando el futuro), was made by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of agricultural workers in Florida. The workers’ hands are stained with pesticides. They pick the tomatoes that are used in the fast food industry.

When I was a student at Davidson College I spent my senior-year spring break working with Habitat For Humanity to build new houses for the people of Immokalee. Talking to men living in a homeless shelter, we learned that most workers live in trailers and sleep on the floor, dividing the rent payment among 6-8 people per trailer. We walked around the neighborhood and saw cots set up in abandoned buildings. We volunteered to play with and read to some elementary school children. We spent several days painting the interior walls and laying sod in the yards of three Habitat houses. But then we turned around and drove back to North Carolina. It was one of many experiences I’ve had that I haven’t yet processed. I think about the people that I met there, but I don’t understand what really happened as we interacted and our lives intersected.

In a Christmas Eve article in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse reports that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers continues to pressure the fast food industry to increase the wages of Florida farm workers. About 85% of the tomatoes that Americans consume in the winter are from Florida.

I think I was born after the point in time when Americans started ignoring the seasons and started eating all kinds of food year-round. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you ate foods that were in-season (or else had been canned while they were in-season) and grown within 150 miles of your residence? That is a goal that I could strive for if I were single, but my husband thinks I’m ridiculous when I suggest any way of life that doesn’t go with the flow. We eat avocado, mango, banana, tomato, rice and many other foods that were not grown anywhere nearby. I am often very dissatisfied with my own life. What can I do to be happy about who I am and the way I live? How can I reconcile my individual desires with my reality?

  1. December 26, 2007 9:11 pm

    There’s two prongs you can take – change the things you can change in your life, and contribute what you can contribute (you can be creative – activism comes in many forms, it doesn’t require you to be out marching or protesting or doing civil disobedience, or you can simply donate $$ if you have some to spare) to the causes that are most important.

    So for the changes you can make – you can first of all support the farmers markets as much as possible. This is a very mainstream thing to do now, it supports local small farmers as well as reducing negative impact on the environment. There might be CSA’s as well in your area; I go for farmers markets because there’s one within walking distance of me, another a couple miles away, and even as a vegan I still don’t go through enough on my own to buy a share in a CSA.

    Actually, first should have been to grow as much of your own food as possible. There are some GREAT books out there on urban gardening, and how to garden in small spaces, often even if you don’t have a yard. “Food Not Lawns” is a great one, and will really make you think about how environmentally unfriendly lawns are, as well as how unfriendly to a global population, much of whom unproductive land is a luxury to the point that it is a slap in the face that we have these vast wastelands of unproductive lands as a matter of course. There are other books too, but FNL is really practical and thought provoking.

    You can buy from a co-op if there’s one in your area – this is almost always cheaper even than regular grocery stores, or close, and you usually have better options in terms of organic produce.

    Buy as much organic as possible. Pesticide kills, that’s what it is designed for. It also kills a lot more than “pests”, it is extremely harmful to the environment AND to the workers who have to work with it.

    You can boycott the fast food restaurants. Honestly, their “food” should be talked about only in quotes, because it is unhealthy, making it horrible for you as well as the farm workers.

    All of those sound like big changes, maybe, and I didn’t mean that you have to go out and do all of them or it would be better to do nothing. BUT, we have choices every time we make a purchase (not just food) and everything we purchase has an impact, so I think we owe it to ourselves, the earth, and our fellow earthlings to put some thought into this.

    This is turning out to be a really REALLY long comment!

    Okay, as for what you can do in terms of activism, sharing the link, talking about the issues to people, encouraging them to boycott the fast food restaurants (a form of activism itself, especially if you write to the companies, and you should, to tell them that you’re boycotting, and why) and get organics, support csa’s and farmers markets, etc. There are always some changes each of us can make, but most of us don’t think about our consumption to this degree and the consequences of that consumption.

    There are some groups who are making the connection between farmers rights, environmental issues, and animal issues. One of them is the Food Empowerment Project:

    I met Lauren, one of the founders of this fledgeling group, and she’s put in some serious work on veganism, workers rights, sustainability, environmental issues. I have a lot of respect for her and her vision. She makes the connection between all these issues, and helps others see the connection too.

    Check out Diet For A Dead Planet (turn it into all one word and put a .com and that should be the url) and learn about some of these issues in a more in depth way. It is focused on the environmental issues and health, and you’ll learn to have a disgust of your mainstream grocery store as well as a really firm understanding of what environmental racism is when it comes to big agriculture. Also it will tie in slaughterhouse workers, and the oppressive conditions they work under.

    (I do feel that educating ourselves is a form of activism – we can’t make change blindly, and we can’t even understand the issues if we don’t educate ourselves!)

    The balance is always going to be hard. Yet there are always more choices than we might see at first. There are always things we can do, and I think a lot of them would be palatable to your husband as well. Growing food, after all, is a fantastic way to teach your kids about all kinds of things, and most kids love digging around in the dirt, and I bet it’s like christmas to them when they see their first carrot pulled out of the ground! In terms of material consumption, you might look first to used, or research whatever it is to see what the environmental issues are and so at least you’ll be making the best informed choice you can. Perfection is simply not something we should strive towards, because it is too far out of reach. Focus on the achievable changes that you can make.

    Anyway, I could probably go on about this for hours, but hopefully my blathering has given you some ideas for figuring out how to achieve some balance that will help you be happier about your personal environmental impact. As a mom, you have a lot of power, don’t forget the impact your thoughtfulness and drive to learn and figure out good choices will have on your kids. 🙂

  2. December 27, 2007 3:52 pm

    Thanks for putting so much effort into this excellent comment, Deb. These suggestions are a tremendous help.

  3. December 27, 2007 5:18 pm

    Oh, good, I’m glad! 🙂

  4. January 2, 2008 5:30 pm

    Read “Real Food” by Nina Planck.
    It most definitely does not promote vegetarianism, but it does promote traditional foods such a grass fed beef, eating locally and seasonally, and staying away from industrial foods. Not as complicated as it might seem. Love your frankness on the blog. But some things like citrus fruits, even Nina orders from California…

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