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Food and Faith and Farm Workers

By Julie Taylor*
The fruits and vegetables that nourish us best are foods that are predominantly provided by farm workers. Some farmers, mostly the smallest ones, harvest their own crops with family members or neighbors but many of the farms must employ large numbers of farm workers to help them get their crops to market. For centuries, people have been imported from other countries to do this kind of work in America’s fields. “Farm workers have always been recruited from among the most vulnerable members of American society--recent immigrants, the homeless, the rural poor--and have consistently been denied the legal protections provided to other workers." (Daniel Rothenberg, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today. Harcourt Brace and Company. New York, San Diego, London. 1998) Despite the incredible contribution they make to our society’s affordable food, they face higher workplace hazards and overall lower wages/benefits than other U.S. workers.
Of specific concern to United Methodist Women are wage disparities, hazardous work conditions and health concerns. “Farm workers have the lowest annual family incomes of any U.S. wage and salary workers.” (Charles D. Thompson Jr. and Melinda F. Wiggins, The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers' Lives, Labor and Advocacy. University of Texas Press; Austin; 2002.) The farm workers in Florida have not had an increase in pay in over 20 years even though the cost of tomatoes has risen. As a hazardous occupation, farm workers face extremely hot working conditions in the summer. “The death rate among agricultural workers nationwide was an estimated 20.9 per 100,000 workers in 1996; compared to the average for all industries of 3.9 per 100,000 workers.” (Reeves, et. al. "Fields of Poison: California Farm workers and Pesticides." California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Pesticide Action Network North America, and the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. 1999.) These persons are at high risk for pesticide exposure and, especially so if their living quarters do not have adequate laundry facilities. This reality contributes to the poor health of farm workers and their families. “The average life expectancy of a farm worker in the United States is forty-nine years.” (Bugarin and Lopez, "Farm workers in California." CaliforniaState Library. California Research Bureau. 1998.)
United Methodist Women have embraced the plight of farm workers by joining in efforts to support legislation to improve the U.S. guest worker program, writing to companies to put pressure on their negotiations on behalf of farm workers with farmers, participating in boycotts and protests around farm worker needs and sharing in the work of the National Farm Workers Ministry, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (FL), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (OH) and Agricultural Missions, Inc. The National Farm Workers Ministry provides connections to all these organizations and is a long time coalition partner of United Methodist Women. For more about this organization see www.nfwm.org or contact them at 438 N. Skinker Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63130 or call
Julie Taylor is an executive with the Women's Division of United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. 

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