Once again, making my way through Jill Richardson's Recipe for America (see previous post) I came across the distressing story of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year-old "undocumented" Mexican migrant worker, now the youngest farm worker in the U.S. to die from heat exhaustion. It was May of 2008, and Jimenez worked harvesting grapes in California. Jimenez collapsed after working for nearly 10 hours in 95 degree heat, receiving only one water break during that time (a direct violation of CA state law). Her employer delayed bringing Jimenez to the hospital, and by the time they did, she arrived in a coma, dying two days later.
Tellingly, it was not Jimenez's death that disturbed me most, so much as the knowledge of her employer: West Coast Grape Farming, a subsidiary of California's Bronco Wine Company which produces the ever-popular-among-broke-2o-somethings wine Charles Shaw, or "Two-Buck Chuck".
I came across this anecdote not a few days after a long conversation with Rob, the farmer I've been working for, about the grocery store Trader Joe's. I've long held a mild grudge against Trader Joe's for their questionable marketing of ethnic foods (labels reading "Trader Ming's," "Trader Giotto's, etc). But Rob's critique of the store was much deeper: he objects to how successfully Trader Joe's perpetuates the idea that good food can, and should be, cheap. Indeed, I've been privy to many a championing of Trader Joe's for their ability to anticipate the needs and appetites of their customers, their delicious pre-prepared meals, and above all, their rock-bottom prices for often organic foods. Rob argued that the cost of food should reflect what it costs to grow it, harvest it, and get it to market (which, for a small, diversified organic grower is a lot more than the costs for large-scale industrial producers). The lower the prices for food at places like Trader Joe's, the less likely consumers will be to spring for Rob's delicious vegetables (usually $2.00/lb), eggs ($6.50/doz.), or free-range chickens ($7.00/lb).
As one of those aforementioned, underemployed 20-somethings, I disagreed with Rob's argument. Lots of folks simply can't afford farmer's market or co-op prices for all-organic food.
There's no way around that fact. But what is slowly beginning to shift my perspective (maybe I could spend a larger chunk of my weekly checks on food) is stories like that of Maria Jimenez. Trader Joe's food isn't just cheap. It's cheap for a reason: the companies they contract with, like Bronco Wine, whether organic or not, rely on exploitable, cheap labor. In other words, and I am certainly not the first to say this, there are costs to our cheap food that we do not see (at least not yet).
But am I in a position to demonize and boycott Trader Joe's? Not really. All I can do is shop conscientiously and buy local when I've got the cash. Until systems change radically and the U.S. government begins subsidizing small-scale, low-impact organic farms, instead of the pesticide-sodden environmentally destructive corn and soybean operations they current do, we will remain caught in this bind.