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A Broadening View of Sustainability

Coffee Picker

I was recently forwarded an interesting article that made the case that our perception of what constitutes “sustainable” food should extend beyond whether crops were organically or locally grown, to include the well-being of the farmworkers who helped to grow them. The article, which focused primarily on farming in the state of California, called attention to the inequities of farmworker conditions there, and argued that improving labor standards is an essential, but often overlooked, component of creating a truly sustainable food system. Why is it, the writer asked, that even organizations that exist to help poor people gain access to nutritious food rarely extend their reach to the people, also poor, who work to grow this food?

It’s not all that difficult to understand this mindset on a personal level. When I shop for food I certainly think about where it comes from and make choices based on health and environmental impact. However, human rights issues are not usually top of mind. But now I have to ask myself, why not? The article, aptly titled “Care About Your Food? Then Care About Your Farmworkers Too,” concludes by stating, “those that care about our food system must broaden their views of food sustainability to include the rights and health of all producers and consumers of food.” This piece really got me thinking about sustainability in much wider terms, and just how far-reaching the effects of the choices we make every day can be. So what do we do? It’s easy to find food stamped with labels like “organic” and “local,” but I have yet to see a food label that says “harvested by workers earning a fair wage, paid time off and a comprehensive health benefits package.” Until the industry develops a standard that informs consumers about farmworker conditions, I suppose we just do our best to become educated about the “food justice” movement, and to raise awareness of it.

Thinking about all of this has given me a new appreciation for organizations like this one. RWI works to educate the children of coffee growers making less than $2 a day, and meets regularly with its students’ community to promote sustainable development there. If sustainable systems depend on the well-being of everyone involved, every step of the way, that kind of work certainly feels like progress to me.

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