Developing strategies to end hunger

3 posts from March 2011

Agricultural Labor in America


"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God …" – Thomas Jefferson

When the first U.S. Census was carried out in 1790, 90 percent of the country’s 4 million residents were farmers or farmworkers. As the nation’s oldest business, everyone from presidents to slaves were intimate with farm life and agricultural production.

But in less than a century, the United States was on its way to becoming an industrial power and an urbanized nation. Today, less than 2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. While we may still possess folkloric visions about farms and enjoy the bounty of agrarian life, most of us don’t want to participate in it.

The country was founded on the ideal of the family farm, but the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the late 19th century meant that family-based farm labor couldn’t meet the needs of growing agricultural operations seeking to supply larger portions of the population. Increasingly driven by technological change and growing national and international markets in the 20th century, farms grew and became mechanized as machines replaced animals (and later, people).

This part we know.

What is less understood is that while farms became mechanized during the 20th century, the agricultural labor force was also becoming largely foreign-born, as native-born agricultural laborers moved to towns and cities for more and better job options.

At least as early as the 1880s, seasonal farm jobs were losing their appeal for Americans. When the native-born drew away from agriculture, immigrants filled the gap. On the West Coast, they came from Asia.

Late 19th-century agricultural labor in the West was dominated by the Chinese. After losing their jobs constructing the transcontinental railroad after it was completed in 1869, the Chinese were shut out of jobs in the cities. They eventually found work in California’s agricultural industry; by the 1880s, up to 80 percent of all California farmworkers were Chinese. After Chinese immigration was banned in 1882, other Asian immigrant groups worked on West Coast farms to fulfill the growing national demand for fruit—Japanese, Filipino, Indians, and Pakistanis being among the most common.

After the Civil War, African-American sharecroppers and poor whites along the East Coast were joined by influxes of European immigrants contracted by employment agencies to meet growing farm labor demand. By the early 20th century, African-Americans were the majority of migrant farmworkers along the East Coast. But the two World Wars would accelerate America’s reliance on immigrant Mexican farmworkers throughout the country.

While Mexicans were involved in agriculture in the West since at least the late 19th century, World War I increased the country’s food demand and prompted a shortage of agricultural laborers. Now largely lost to history, Mexicans were recruited by the United States to work in agriculture—first during World War I and on a larger scale during World War II through the Bracero Program.

As whites and African-Americans gradually moved out of agricultural work after World War II, native-born Hispanics and Mexican immigrants—both authorized and unauthorized—became the labor force for rural America on both coasts and in the Midwest.

Today, Spanish is the de facto language of the agricultural labor force, with 84 percent of farmworkers claiming this as their native tongue. In 2010, experts estimated that 75 percent of workers on crop farms were immigrants—mostly from Mexico and Central America—and two-thirds were unauthorized. This estimate may be low. Many growers state that up to 90 percent of their workforce is unauthorized.

Agricultural labor in America is now largely in the hands of Latin Americans and Caribbean islanders, both legal residents and—more commonly—unauthorized immigrants. If your food wasn’t harvested by a machine, it was probably produced by immigrants—most of them living in the country without authorization and in poverty.

According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, farmworkers, “while critical to many agricultural sectors … remain among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the United States.” The same study found that weekly median earnings of crop farmworkers were lower than maids, construction workers, security guards, and janitors. Only dishwashers were found to have lower weekly earnings.

The nation’s primary food producers are also among the most food insecure. One study in North Carolina found that food insecurity among Latino farmworkers was four times higher than the general U.S. population. Specifically, 47 percent of Latino farmworker households in the study were classified as food insecure and 5 percent were found to be suffering from severe hunger.

While Jefferson envisioned an almost sacred role for farmers, today the workforce that harvests the food we eat is under increasing economic and immigration enforcement pressure from a country that does not want immigrants working the fields, but which long ago lost interest in agrarian life.


Marking International Women's Day

Today is the centennial of International Woman’s Day, a day worth marking for anyone who is concerned about international development. As most people familiar with development issues know, poverty and hunger are related directly to the status of women in society, and because women are the main caregivers of children we must also realize their conditions are inextricably linked. As women escape poverty and hunger, so too do children.

International Women’s Day is a time for celebrating progress and reminding ourselves of how much work remains.  First, a word about progress. Bread for the World President David Beckman was recently in Bangladesh, a country he worked in 35 years ago, long before he came to Bread. This was his first time back in the country and reflecting on how different things were he focused on the status of the women.

Bangladesh is still very poor, but changes for the better were evident everywhere -- better roads, betters homes, healthy-looking children, colorful clothes, and lots of cell phones. The biggest change is the role of women.  Thirty-five years ago, almost all women stayed in their houses.  I learned to speak Bengali, but almost never talked with a woman.  Janet taught at a government girl’s school about four blocks from our house.  She wore skirts down to the ankles.  But when she walked to school, men would sometimes shout abusive remarks.  Now women meet with men, they speak up, and some hold elective offices.

A year ago exactly, I was in Bangladesh. I don’t have the same perspective as David’s, but out in the rural areas I couldn't help notice how involved the women were in the local economies, often with a young child riding on their hip. The picture that appears on the cover of the 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition, I took on this trip. As you can see, these beautiful women captured on film don’t seem much afraid to be seen outside. I snapped this picture while visiting a family that was participating in a USAID agricultural program run by Helen Keller International. The mother in the household led us around the farm while her husband walked with us but stayed quietly behind us, politely letting her run the show.IMG_0387

I don’t want to give an exaggerated impression. Women in Bangladesh don’t have the same rights as women in the United States or Western Europe and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about how far they still have to go.  The woman we spoke with looked to be about half her husband’s age or younger. Indeed it would have been easier to mistake her as a sister to her daughters than the wife of this man.

Because it's international women’s day, we tend to forget that this includes women in the United States. While U.S. women have made tremendous progress too over the last century, they still have their share of struggles to overcome. While the number of white women living in poverty outnumber minorities, more than a quarter of black women and Hispanic women are living in poverty.

Just a couple of days ago, I attended a conference sponsored by the Alliance to End Hunger in which I had an opportunity to talk with some of the women involved in Witness to Hunger, a project sponsored by Drexell University in Philadelphia, which gave the woman cameras to show what it’s like to be poor and trying to raise children in the neighborhoods where they live.  I’ve blogged about this project in the past and so it was a pleasure to sit down with the participants and learn more about their lives.

Tianna Gaines and her family live in one of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city, the Frankford neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. She and her husband are raising three young children, and they are dogged by hunger most of the time. The family moved here two years ago when they were offered subsidized housing, after spending ten years on a waiting list. On their first day in the new home, Tianna was seated on the stoop with her children. A man approached from the sidewalk and told her and the children to move inside. She knew what this meant and immediately took the children inside. Minutes later, the street exploded in gunfire as rival gangs staged a battle in front of her home.

Philadelphia is a world away from Bangladesh, but when I showed Tianna a copy of the 2011 Hunger Report she looked at the cover and said to me she saw herself in those women.  

2011 International Women's Day: A Centenary Celebration

When International Women’s Day was first observed, in March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, women in most countries did not have the right to vote and very few were encouraged to get an education.

Today marks the Centenary celebration. Women have reached a lot of milestones in the interim, but clearly there’s still a long way to go.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day on 8 March is ‘Equal access to education, training, and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.’ This message couldn’t be more timely. Since an increasing number of women in rural areas are taking on roles as heads of households, solely responsible for the family’s food production, the need for access to information and technical training to increase agricultural potential is urgent. Today, in its flagship report, the FAO emphasized that governments must boost investment in agriculture, and that “closing the gender gap in agricultural production by empowering women could potentially boost developing countries' output by 2.5%-4% and feed an extra 100-150 million starving people.”

The need for women’s access to economic opportunities and education can longer be discounted. In September 2000, all U.N. member countries committed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end poverty and make development a reality for all by 2015.  Millennium Development Goal 3:  Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women, has specific targets: to even the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary, and tertiary education; to increase the share of women in paid jobs in non-agricultural sectors; and to boost the proportion of women in nationally-elected positions. While significant progress has been seen around the world, the path towards meeting this MDG remains uneven and sluggish on all fronts, from education access to political decision-making.

 Why We Must Care

The U.N. General Assembly cited two reasons for adopting its resolution on  International Women's Day: to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality, and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. Indeed, since 2000 there has been significantly more attention and appreciation paid to the role of women in building strong, peaceful, and healthy societies. International Women’s Day is not just a celebration, but also an occasion to examine the progress made, identify obstacles, and most importantly, map a collective way forward.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are at the heart of the MDGs, and they are preconditions for overcoming poverty, hunger, and disease. The new 1,000 Days campaign—focusing on preventing malnutrition during pregnancy and a baby’s first two years--acknowledges that nutrition is foundational for health and development and that only by improving nutrition can the world achieve the MDGs. Women are vulnerable to food insecurity despite being primary actors in the food chain, suffering disproportionately from hunger and disease. As a result, poverty remains stubbornly “feminized,” with women accounting for 70 percent of the world’s absolute poor. We must remember that increasing household income does not necessarily improve the nutritional and health status of women and children when that income is controlled by men.

 But when women have bargaining power within the household, they are likely to help translate gains in income into nutritional improvements. Providing women with access to assets such as land and paid work promotes better child health and nutrition and increased expenditures on education, which in turn contribute to overall poverty reduction. In India and China--the two greatest examples of poverty reduction in modern history--gender inequality is threatening to undermine long-term progress based on some discriminatory cultural practices, especially on access to education.

Women’s share in nonagricultural work has barely changed

But there is hope. Achieving the MDGs is still within our reach. After years of stagnation, UNESCO reports that foreign assistance for basic education increased from U.S. $2.4 billion in 2008 to U.S. $3.8 billion in 2009, while over the same time period, aid for overall education increased from U.S. $5 billion to U.S. $7.8 billion. Though encouraging, these levels are far below the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report’s estimate of the cost of providing Education for All:  $16 billion. By denying women and girls the opportunity to attain a quality education, we forfeit great human capital and investment returns. Some of the cost is in young lives: a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age 5. Each additional year of a mother’s schooling reduces the chance of infant mortality between 5 percent and 10 percent. In Africa’s poorest states, an estimated 1.8 million children’s lives could have been saved if their mothers had a secondary education. One key reason is having access to lifesaving health information; for example, women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated on the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

 What Has Worked

 Providing secondary school stipends for girls in Bangladesh:

The Female Secondary School Stipend program in Bangladesh has provided money directly to girls and their families to cover tuition and other costs, on the condition that they enroll in secondary school and remain unmarried until the age of 18. By 2005, 56 percent of all secondary school enrollees in the regions covered by the program were girls, compared with 33 percent in 1991.

 Furthering women’s employment empowerment in Mexico:

Mexico has developed an innovative federal program called Generosidad that awards a “Gender Equity Seal” to private firms. Seals are granted through an independent evaluation that assesses a company’s achievement of specific standards related to gender equity, including recruitment, career advancement, training, and reducing sexual harassment. By 2006, 117 companies had obtained the seal. Similar initiatives have been launched in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Egypt.

 Setting a gender quota for Parliament in Kyrgyzstan:

In 2005, there were no women in the Kyrgyz Parliament and only one woman in a cabinet position. In 2007, following a nationwide discussion facilitated by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), a 30 percent gender quota was added to the election code. By 2008, Kyrgyzstan had the highest proportion in Central Asia of women in Parliament (25.6 percent) and in government (21 percent).

UNDP also supports the participation of women in the political process in Rwanda, where women now make up 56 per cent of the Parliament - the world’s highest share.

Significant progress toward gender equity is essential if the world is to succeed in the effort to make poverty history. Freedom from extreme poverty and hunger, quality education, productive and gainful employment, and being able to give birth without risking one’s life are all human needs and basic rights that every person in the world should be able to enjoy. This is humanity’s moral obligation.

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