Super Powers

The other day my doorbell rang and it was my next door neighbor, looking panicked. Turns out she had locked herself out of her house and her 12 mo old was inside. I gave her a hug and my phone and she called her husband, but he didn’t pick up. We tried to think of a way in but our condos are really secure! Then I recalled how my cat visits her balcony by jumping from ours and suggested we try that.
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She was too short to get up over the balcony railing, but I could, so much to her terror I climbed over (apparently my kids were so scared they were hiding) and jumped over to her side. Then of COURSE her screen door that she assured me was open wasn’t, and so I ordered her to go to my kitchen and get a big knife, which I used to slice right through that puppy and break into her house. After I met her and my kids in her back patio she was still shaking, but the baby was asleep the whole time and had not a clue.

Aside from my apparently strong potential as a cat burglar, this got me thinking about how much we do for our kids – or even for someone else’s kids. As much as I’m not a kid person, I do feel a responsibility to watch out for the village urchins, and I hope other parents are doing the same for mine.

So here is a question recently raised by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff on the US News site: if we would gladly die for our children, why won’t we perform one of the simplest and most meaningful expression of love in our quiver – namely, cooking for them?

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s excellent (as always) new book, Cooked, and he frequently makes the point that cooking is what separates humankind from the rest of the animals: it is what created culture; it is how we bond as communities and families. If cooking makes us human, why aren’t we making more of a point to…um…do it? If we want to raise little people – not little brats or animals – maybe, just maybe, we’re missing out on one of the core skills that will civilize them (hey, if it worked for cavemen…).

When I posted my rescue story on Facebook, it got a ton of positive responses. But you know, we deserve just as much praise for the formerly everyday act of preparing a homecooked meal. In this day and age it is practically a superpower to be able to actually cook for yourself (instead of just watching it on TV). I fear that many of us avoid cooking because it seems too difficult, glamorous, expensive, or only for pros. Worse, we pass that discomfort and fear on to our children – and Food Inc will be only too happy to pick up the slack.

cooking with kidsBut cooking isn’t only for corporations or chefs. It’s for everyone. It’s worth learning and it’s worth teaching. My son loves cooking as much or more than any other activity. He begs to help his dad every day in the kitchen (we’re fortunate that he has the male role model doing the cooking).

We drive our children all over to myriad classes and events; we pay a small fortune for the privilege of letting others teach them sports or dance or music. And yet we have, right in our kitchens, a learning opportunity that engages their whole body (and all five senses) plus brain: teaching fine motor skills, patience, turn-taking and sharing, counting and fractions, reading, and appreciation of pleasure. And it doesn’t cost any more than we’ve already spent on groceries, plus of course time (that we otherwise might not have spent with the kiddo – well invested, I say).

Most importantly, when we cook, the aromas and the presentation and the flavors carry our love into the eater’s subconscious, whispering how much we deeply care. If children are part of creating that moment, then they learn love of neighbor on a whole new level. We have taken the time, energy, and resources to create something out of nothing, just for them, just to bring them joy and to nourish their needs.  If food is God’s love made edible, I like to think that the homecooked meal is a parent’s love (or partner’s or child’s or friend’s) sent straight into the body of the eater, to be fully absorbed by their very being.

And that, my friends, is truly powerful.cooking-love

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Case Study: Tomatoes

Along with reading Tracie McMillan’s undercover story of her time in the California fields that produce grapes, peaches, and garlic, I’ve been reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. At first glance, the tagline “How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit” makes one think this will be a book about how we came to buy tasteless, colorless tomatoes all throughout the year thanks to the wonders of modern technology. And it does start there, moving on to a seriously disturbing chapter about the chemicals used in tomato farming that will have you run screaming from the produce aisle. The story of deformed babies born to women who’d worked in the fields while pregnant will give any mother pause about feeding these fruits to her children.

But the book’s main purpose, I believe, is to reveal the conditions in which the field hands live and work in order to provide for the American sense of entitlement to buy tomatoes any time of year. They were first outlined by Estabrook in his article for Gourmet magazine, which led directly to this book, entitled “The Price of Tomatoes“. There, and in the book of course, you will find the details behind the broad strokes I will mention here. I can’t recommend reading either or both highly enough.

In the best cases, workers are hired to pick winter tomatoes (picked green and hard then gassed to be red for market – but that’s another issue) and are paid, on a good day, about $70 for 8-9 hours of work (their wages, paid by the bushel gathered, have gone up dramatically just in the last few years after having been stagnant for thirty years, owing to a long battle by a coalition of workers that reads like a movie script – and really, should be – that involved a social media campaign getting major fast food outlets on board to pay “a penny more per pound”. Sadly, no grocery stores signed on to the pact, which also has provisions for better treatment of laborers, except Whole Foods early on and more recently Trader Joe’s).

That’s if they work all day; much of the time, hours are spent traveling to fields, waiting for trucks or other equipment, or any number of other delays for which they are not paid. One worker was out in the fields for nine hours and came home with a little over $13. In addition, they “are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy” (p. xiv). And many days there is no work for large numbers of those who are willing and able, and they return to their homes frustrated and deeper in poverty than before.

At least they came home whole. Conditions in the field are dangerous and downright illegal, much of the time. Workers are forbidden breaks of any kind, even to go to the bathroom or drink water. If they don’t comply, they may be fired or even beaten. This is happening to children – only in agriculture are youths as young as twelve allowed to work. Originally, this was so farming families could have their own kin helping out; nowadays it’s used against the most vulnerable among the migrant farmworker population.

The living conditions at “home” aren’t much better: workers live in squalor, many in trailers near the parking lots where they are picked up for work. Estabrook visited one such trailer, where ten men shared the single-wide space: sleeping on rank mattresses on the floor, together using one bathroom and one tiny stove. His description of the space is stomach-turning. And for the privilege of enduring these conditions, the men paid $2,000 a month in rent!

But the most harrowing stories are those of the workers kept in – there’s no other way to put it – slave conditions. “Sold” to work crew bosses, they are forced to work all day, drowning under souped-up “debts” they can never repay, chained or locked up at night, and beaten or even killed if they try to escape. The conditions are described in detail in Estabrook’s article linked above and I encourage you to read about it. It is, unfortunately, not a “few and far between” occurrence. Slavery cases are regularly prosecuted in this part of Florida, and that’s only the ones they catch (you can imagine how difficult it would be to get witnesses for such cases, when the witnesses first have to escape slavery, then be willing to speak out about it, risking deportation and being labeled a snitch and therefore unemployable).

Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney, calls Florida’s tomato fields “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Estabrook elaborates: “Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida” (p. xv). Unfortunately, the punishment for these crimes usually stops at the lower level, with crew bosses or contractors. The growers, the farmowners, the corporations they grow for, and the rest of us may never even hear about it…much less be held accountable.

Do you understand what this means? Nearly 150 years after the Civil War, people are enslaved to pick crops, and it’s a regular business practice. One landowner said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them” (p. 83). Another responded to worker demands for better treatment (via hunger strikes and requests for dialogue) with the flippant remark: “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to farm” (p. 110).

A simple way to sum up the plight of tomato workers came to Estabrook when he was serving in the soup kitchen in the tomato town of Immokalee, FL: “Workers who pick the food we eat cannot afford to feed themselves” (p. 107). When Estabrook asked Molloy if it was “safe to assume” that we had, all of us, at one time or another eaten a tomato picked by a slave, he responded, “It’s not an assumption. It’s a fact” (p. xvi).

Want to know more, or help? Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s website or Estabrook’s blog. Tomorrow I’ll continue talking about slavery, and finish the week with a few suggestions for how you can help impart justice to farm workers.