Aiming for the Heart and the Stomach: Food Reform
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," said Upton Sinclair about his book The Jungle a story of workers' rights set in the filthy stockyards of the early 20th century. At the time, readers focused more on the tainted sausages and less on the men, women, and children eking out an unhealthy existence in the meatpacking plant and its environs. The story remains a case study of how nasty food products are no healthier for those producing them than they are to consumers.
The Civil Eats blog had a great post today about our recent food contamination scandals being a revisiting of problems that were really never solved from Sinclair's time. Re-prioritizing Food Safety: Getting out of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, Again mainly focuses on the actual safety of the food, but I think the larger message is applicable to workers' rights as well:
Oddly enough, it's rare to find any mention of workers' health in the many online discussions about food safety. Consumers are concerned about contracting toxins or diseases from factory workers, but what about the wellbeing of the factory workers who mix up and package our processed foods far removed from nature? I'm just talking about factories, now, not even the people working in non-organic farms who are exposed to fertilizers. Take artificial flavorings, for instance: you probably know they're not good for you, but did you know they're even worse for the factory workers handling them?
"Disease is swift, response is slow: Government lets flavoring industry police itself, despite damage to workers' lungs," begins a Baltimore Sun article from 2006. Some legislative action was put in motion after the initial fuss: see here and here.
In North Carolina, where there are a large number of immigrants working in poultry processing plants and stockyards, workers' rights blend into hot-button immigration issues...which perhaps explains why people are less eager to discuss occupational health when pushing for food reform that will at least keep salmonella and E. coli out of our peanuts and spinach. I still think that in order to create meaningful change, the conscious eating/local foods/organic movement must acknowledge all the people and processes our food passes through before it gets to the plate. It may take being hit “in the stomach” to get to our hearts, but I do hope we make it there.