Farmworkers Teach the Nation's Top Chefs about Justice in the Food System

By Edgar Franks

 Ramon Torres (FUJ) and Edgar Franks (C2C)

Ramon Torres (FUJ) and Edgar Franks (C2C)

Earlier this month, it was my honor to accompany Ramon Torres to Chicago so that he could receive the prestigious James Beard Leadership Award from the James Beard Foundation. These are my thoughts and perspective about the significance of this award:

When we think about the various sectors that exist within the food movement, it can be an overwhelming exercise. There are probably hundreds of moving parts that make up the food system: there are farmworkers, farmers, grocers, cooks, fast food workers, dairymen and women, urban gardeners, fisherfolk... For me personally, it wouldn't have occurred to me to think about the role chefs play in the food system and how much influence they have.

The James Beard Foundation is an organization that honors and celebrates chefs and others within the food chain for their contributions and work to make the food system sustainable for everyone. For the past 5 years, they have tried to expand their honors and recognitions beyond just chefs and restaurants, which make up only a part of the food industry. These leadership awards have begun to honor those who are doing significant work in different sectors relating to equity in the food system, such as policy-making, business, and, more recently, labor and social justice.

President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Ramon Torres, was one of the honorees for the 2018 James Beard Leadership Award due to his continuous efforts from the early stages in 2013 to the formal establishment of the first farmworker union in Washington State in over 30 years and the boycott of Driscolls, which led to the negotiation, in 2016, of one of the best contracts for farmworkers in the country.

Recognition by professional chefs of farmworker-led organizing is particularly significant considering the political climate farmworkers are living in at this time. Racist groups and racist policies make life difficult for farmworkers — this is compounded by the exploitative labor practices of the agricultural industry and the industry's false claims of a farmworker shortage to justify displacement of local farm workers as corporate growers opt for a neo-slave workforce under H2A contracts. In the summer of 2017, C2C and Familias Unidas faced down a corporate farm responsible for the death of one of 675 farmworkers brought in under the H2A program to work at Sarbanand Farms in Whatcom County.  

It was an interesting experience to see people's reactions at the awards ceremony as they heard a farmworker speak truth, whether about poverty, pesticides, or child labor. With this award, a space has opened for building an alliance that moves beyond cooking and eating at high-end restaurants, stocking food banks and more towards a solidarity framework. We hope there can be more collaboration between chefs and farmworkers in achieving justice for farmworkers and the many other exploited workers in the food chain.

In recognizing Ramon and the union, the award is also an achievement not only for the farmworker movement, but the labor movement. Some of the lowest paid work is in the food industry. It is also an industry where many immigrants work. Food worker organizing is fought at every corner and union-busting is rampant, but this recognition of Familias Unidas is an opportunity to begin a dialogue about bringing justice throughout the food chain, in which workers are seen as being as important as chefs and the people that consume their culinary creations.