A few days ago, it was announced that the shooter in El Paso last week admitted to targeting Mexicans. He wasn’t the only one. Last weeks ICE raids are part of a complex history of injustice within the poultry industry, one that also has a legacy targeting Mexicans in El Paso.
One would think that the stench you can smell in Scott Co, Mississippi would be from the chicken factories, but the truth is, it comes from decades of racism and exploits, where racial groups were pitted against each other in an attempt to prevent wage increases. Yes, Scott County is a microcosm, but the truth is when examined it is representative of the food industry as a whole.
While many took to social media last week in a national outcry against the ICE raids, the “food movement” was largely silent. Todays “movement” is a far cry from the populist movements of the past, and instead is focused on conscious consumerism, where every eater from San Francisco to Brooklyn is empowered to eat healthy, over-priced organically certified foods. Look no further than to the millions of posts about sustainability, while food journalists, academics and chefs were silent to defending the rights of the immigrants that put food on their tables.
It is estimated that 70–80% of farmworkers are immigrants, and that between half and three-quarters are undocumented. This is not accidental. When held in contrast that farm ownership is one of the whitest professions in America, it is alarming how hashtags citing plastic straws and food waste trend more than farm worker or immigrant rights.
Our food system is a human rights issue. It about poverty and gender rights, immigration and racial justice, Indigenous knowledge and the building of rural communities. These are the issues on the minds of the worlds farmers, but absent in the vocabulary of foodies. When we fail to confront these issues we are treating symptoms not cause, enabling the very corporations that predate on migrants.
Make no mistake, since it’s dawn, agriculture has been rooted in exploitation. We now know the first walls erected around the fertile valleys that gave birth to agriculture were designed to keep peasants in, not barbarians out. As the machine of agriculture is perfected and the system becomes more centralized, the exploitation has become more refined. It is no longer just a byproduct, but a dependency. When we ignore that injustice, we are complacent in it’s exploitation.
In 1977, B.C. Rogers poultry plant, also of Scott County, MI, began recruiting Mexican workers from El Paso, Texas, the site this months mass murder. The rise of industrialization had created frenetic and unsafe work environments for white workers. Unable to unionize, the industry opened its doors to African Americans. Fast forward 10 years, when African Americans began organizing for fair wages and conditions, the first hispanics were bused in from El Paso in an effort the company dubbed, “The Hispanic Project”.
In the 1990’s as American’s appetite for white meat grew, more plants were erected in Scott County, often times with workers laboring 16 hour days. As attempts to organize and demand better pay were futile, African Americans left the industry all together. The 1990’s saw the largest influx of transnational labor, and the project recruited almost 5 thousand workers. These workers caught in the scheme, were charged fees for housing, transportation, deducted out of their $6.50 an hour, leaving them with less than $200.00 a week. The millennium brought an even greater influx of migrant labor, and today’s workforce is from all over the Americas. While the migrant workers labor long shifts on the factory floors, the local high school football teams enthusiastically competed for the Golden Chicken, a much coveted award in Scott County.
The exploitation doesn’t end there, as the industry was built on the backs of slaves. In 1692, as slave owners were fearful that the livestock rearing would allow slaves enough capital to buy their own freedom, The Virginia General Assembly made it illegal for slaves to own larger livestock. Poultry, thought as unthreatening, was the only livestock that George Washington allowed his slaves to raise. It is through the dark history of slavery as well as the resilience and indigenous knowledge of the slaves that the poultry industry was built. The history has been ignored, and at best forgotten.
Only through the unveiling of the the poultry industry, can we realize that last weeks shootings of “foreign invaders” and this week’s raid are actually part of the same story. A story of the dangerous trend of corporate interests above workers rights, and the industry’s dark history of exploiting migrant labor, while creating false narratives about labor shortages. A story where corporations who target immigrants get off free, while 680 migrants are arrested.
I was once told a story about Cesar Chavez, where a reporter from NYC asked him how he explained the respect that farm workers gave him. He smiled, and responded, “The feeling is mutual.” It seems the current “food movement” would be well served by remembering these words and centering on workers and farmers. We must be building bridges to rural america, not celebrating trends and technologies that further displace farmers from out food system.
Unlike today’s food movement, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez’s Salad Bowl strike, was an actual movement. There were mass pickets, boycotts and rally’s that led to the largest farm worker strike in U.S. History. Lettuce shipments halted as the price skyrocketed. Farm owners lost half a million dollars a day and the public stood, including judges, stood with the farm workers.
Today, Koch Foods, is under a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation for discriminating against black-owned businesses in Mississippi. The company has yet to be penalized and is still producing for both Walmart and Burger King. Nonetheless, not a single management position was arrested after last week’s raid. Perhaps, the current food movement will be too busy praising the new impossible whopper, rather than demanding justice for the workers.