“US food system could not function without immigrants”

Immigrant farm worker picks potatoes by hand

The U.S. food system simply could not function without the contributions of immigrants, and a one-size-fits-all approach to immigration does not work.

by:  Jessica

Amid the clinking of glasses and low hum of diners’ chatter, a waiter carries a salad bowl through a restaurant. This is not just a bowl of greens—these spinach leaves and romaine hearts represent a vast network of labor: from farmers planting the seeds and farmworkers harvesting the greens, to drivers trucking them across state lines, and kitchen staff washing them, and many layers in between.

Immigrants are deeply involved in this complex journey from seed to plate. They are an essential link in the chain of our food system, and are an indelible part of rural America, contributing to the economic and cultural fabric of these communities. It’s hard to picture our food system without them.

Farmer Randy Mooney, Chairman of the Board of the Dairy Farmers of America, knows this all too well. After losing his main farmhand due to illness, Randy tried tirelessly to recruit workers for his farm. Randy, a third-generation dairy farmer from Missouri, went through the usual channels: local universities (three of them), newspaper postings, and word of mouth, all of which resulted in only one response (that didn’t work out). But, just down the road, his neighbor had consistent, reliable help from immigrant farmworkers.

This phenomenon is not unique to Randy or Midwestern dairies. Farm help is needed from coast to coast, border to border, and among all agricultural sectors. Estimates of farmworkers in this country vary greatly. On the one hand, Farmworker Justice, estimates that 70-80% of farmworkers are immigrants (between half and three-quarters of whom are undocumented). The USDA however, has a slightly lower number, citing that about 60% of all agriculture workers are foreign born. These discrepancies speak to the veiled nature of the work, number of undocumented workers, and power inequities embedded in the industry.[i] Crop production employs the most immigrants, as 85% of fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand.

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