Rock bottom of the food chain: Children in the fields

Prepare yourself for Food and Society Conference overload — Elanor and I are here in Chandler, AZ, at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s annual food-movement meeting and thanks to an angel named Nicole de Beaufort, there is practically an army of bloggers this time. Basically, I’m hanging out with half our blog roll at left: Tom Philpott of Grist; Sam Fromartz of Chews Wise; Brian Depew of the Blog for Rural America; Curt Ellis of King Corn; Kerry Trueman from Eating Liberally, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and (mind-melding with) for the first time; and somewhere around here is Parke Wilde of U.S. Food Policy.

I’ll be posting (hopefully) brief snippets for the next few days. The conference has just begun and already I have five things I want to blog. Sam and Kerry have their laptops out too, earning us disapproving looks from those around us, but hey, it’s why we were invited.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation‘s motto for this conference is “Making Food Healthy, Green, Fair and Affordable,” which is not unlike last year’s. But the foundation itself has recently “restated” its mission to define it as supporting “children, families, and communities as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society.” I read that in the conference program last night and yawned, and not only at the obfuscating verbiage. Do we really need one more “save the children” nonprofit?

Today, however, we learned how that translates into the food movement: it’s a focus on the children of migrant workers, particularly undocumented immigrants. This is a social-justice topic even jaded moi can really get behind.

Norma Flores, the daughter of migrant workers who herself worked in the fields growing up, spoke about the enormity of the situation. Here in the United States alone, more than 170,000 children aged 12-17 — and that’s the legally hired number, estimates of the real number put it closer to 430,000 if I can read the notes I scrawled in the dark — are exempt from federal protective child-labor laws. That means they can work in 100-degree fields for six to seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for far less than minimum wage. They do so to help their families survive. In Minnesota beet fields, the going rate for picking is $22 per acre. Period. No matter how many people it takes to clear it. So the more hands in one family who are picking, the more of that pittance they can keep.

More to come.

Update: So much for real-time blogging. A later session devoted entirely to Kellogg’s changing agenda clarified that while the new mission definitely encompasses a social justice agenda, it’s not confined to farm-worker children, but to all “vulnerable” young Americans, “working on the systematic barriers to opportunity.” It is therefore once again a little mysterious to me whether Kellogg will continue its enormously influential work supporting sustainable agriculture and food systems, and whether this will be the last Food and Society Conference. Guess we food-pol nerds will just have to make the most of this one.

One Responseto “Rock bottom of the food chain: Children in the fields”

  1. “In Minnesota beet fields, the going rate for picking is $22 per acre. Period.” … they probably pay more in China!
    Greed. It knows no bounds.