If money grew on trees, farmworkers would be rolling in dough.
Food is critical for human survival, and yet the farmworkers who bring it to our tables often struggle for survival themselves.
The invisibility of farmworkers and the conditions in which they labor and live is an issue at the heart of a recently funded Solutions Generator project.
Farmworkers have to face inadequate housing, low pay, lack of educational opportunities and health care, and direct and indirect exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Labor camps are often situated right next to the fields, and wind carries harmful chemicals into their homes.
The Solutions Generator is a program run by Portland State’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions that provides money for students’ original projects related to sustainability.
This project is called “Bringing Farmworker Awareness to the Sustainable Food Table at PSU.” It’s in its second year and will culminate on campus during Farmworker Awareness Week, to be held April 13–20.
“It’s about raising awareness of the intersection of the food we eat and the people who provide it,” said project leader Rob Duren, a graduate student in the sustainability program.
Duren and several of his project partners are members of PSU’s Food Action Collective, which Duren founded last year.
Also working on the project are members of Las Mujeres and the Sustainability Leadership Center.
Farmworker Awareness Week at PSU was started last year by students Betty Marin and Patricia Velasquez. At the time, Duren was in the process of organizing FAC and Angela Hamilton of ISS approached him about also joining the Solutions Generator project due to similar goals.
With its second year, the goal is to see the Solutions Generator project become institutionalized. The immediacy of the issues has not changed.
In Oregon, farmworkers are predominately Latino immigrants. According to the group, the average lifespan of a migrant farmworker is 47 years.
“[The project is] a good pathway in connecting the three facets of sustainability—social, environmental and economic,” said Abby Warren, a senior community development major.
According to a summary on the ISS website, the project “will highlight farmworker contributions to Oregon’s economy and food production sector, as well as the struggles and legislative gains to obtain better working conditions, wage, housing and other fundamental human rights.”
“We want to keep doing this until we actually effect change in policy,” Duren said.
The project was modeled on a national campaign called Student Action with Farmworkers. They organize an annual Farmworker Awareness Week, currently in its 14th year.
This year’s Farmworker Awareness Week at PSU will include several events: a panel with a keynote speaker; a screening of a documentary film called The Harvest, which follows the lives of child farmworkers as young as 12; a service learning day and a trip to a farm labor camp in conjunction with Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United).
PCUN, based in Woodburn, is Oregon’s only union dedicated to farmworkers. According to their website, PCUN is also Oregon’s largest Latino organization, with a membership of more than 5,000.
“We’re going to try to get the PCUN label here at PSU,” said Kelsey Hoffman, a senior anthropology major and cochair of FAC.
Aramark and Food For Thought Cafe have been approached the FAC about joining the Union Label Marketing Initiative. This program began in 2004 at Willamette University in Salem in order to establish “a purchasing preference for PCUN union label agricultural products, increasing revenues for growers and employment opportunities for workers under PCUN contract,” according to the PCUN website.
The service learning day will be in conjunction with CAPACES Leadership Institute. CAPACES is the heading for a collaboration of several local organizations including PCUN and the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation, which runs Woodburn-area farmworker housing units.
CAPACES seeks to develop sustainable buildings that surpass LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards and provide youth with an opportunity to develop leadership skills.
Warren explained that farmworker empowerment was one of the guiding ideas of PSU’s Farmworker Awareness Week, and that working with CAPACES was a way of achieving solidarity.
Duren advised any students who might be interested in getting involved with the project to attend a FAC meeting, typically held on Mondays. Information can be found at facebook.com/foodactioncollective.