Civility at the dinner table has long been a value of mine. 

Taking care not to speak ill of others, engage in arguments, or discuss disturbing news contributes to a pleasant dining experience. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to view it as much more than having decent manners and keeping conversations positive. The food on our plates can undermine all that politeness, making eating one of the most uncivil acts we can perform. In a world where our ethics overlap in complicated ways, sometimes a bit of knowledge can make a monumental difference.

To illustrate, consider a report recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) regarding the effectiveness of state educational systems in delivering civil rights education. Three states received ‘A’ letter grades. Interestingly, these three states were in the old South: Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. Fourteen states received failing grades, many of which are in the traditional north and the west. 

The report explains: “Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, many states continue to mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students…Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the movement.”

It seems fitting that here in North Carolina, a center of civil rights activity in the 1960s, there is a museum dedicated to the movement. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro is dedicated to preserving the memory of a specific event–the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that began in February 1960. Name-checking Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and others, it pays tribute to those whose work is done. But it stops there. It issues no rousing call-to-action for the many civil rights violations that occur daily. It seems to not know of the ongoing struggle among American agricultural workers in the same state. However, civil rights are not only a Black and White issue.

In light of the SPLC statement about proximity, it seems odd that farm workers are not mentioned: agriculture is the state’s 3rd largest industry.

The problem is not unique to North Carolina, by any means. In my previous home state of New Mexico—a state with a very active border—biases were frequently strong against agricultural workers. I recall having an animated conversation with an editor there, one whose most recent work was on a manuscript with a strong civil rights edge. I stated my frustration over the fact that many agricultural workers are routinely denied medical treatment. She reacted angrily, offended by my suggestion that they be cared for. Simply put, they were illegal and had no rights. She, however, was a hard-working American.

Her response laid bare the sticky center of the problem: we have conflated the terms ‘agricultural worker’ and ‘foreign national.’ Additional terms, such as ‘guest worker,’ ‘migrant farm worker,’ and ‘what-about-Americans-doing-farm-work?’ only cloud the issue. It’s easier to put them all in the same category—‘illegals’–and justify institutionalized civil rights abuses. If they’re not citizens, they don’t have rights. And tagging them all as non-citizens instills plenty of distance between us and their problem.

But just as civil rights are not only a Black and White issue, they are also not a citizenship issue. The question of citizenship is really a moot point, to be honest. Regulations that govern the agricultural industry endanger the well-being and lives of all workers, domestic and imported.

Consider that child labor in agricultural settings is permitted by the Fair Labor Standards Act. All workers are exposed to unregulated pesticides in the name of research. Many states exempt agricultural workers from disability and workers’ compensation. Overtime hours are not paid. The rights infractions go on and on, in regulations which apply to American citizens, in an industry with the highest occupational fatality rate in the country and an astronomical rate of chemical-related illnesses.
It is true that the problem is enormously exaggerated when the H-2 guest worker program is also considered. H-2 workers are denied the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. They are bound to the employers who hired them. They can be subject to deportation or other retaliation, without recourse. They live in squalid conditions and are denied medical treatment for on-the-job injuries. Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel declared the guest worker program to be the closest thing he’d ever seen to slavery.
Rarely do those of us who enjoy the fruits of all this hazardous labor ever see the workers themselves. The fields are far removed from our neighborhoods, cities, and perhaps even our states of residence. As the SPLC observed, the farther away the problem, the less attention it is given. Most of us will never see an industrial farm worker with our own eyes. We’re not really sure of where they actually work. 

So, being a determined civil eater, what am I to do about this unseen problem? Well, to begin with, I can get educated, just as the SPLC urges. The more I know, the more I can fight for changes long term. I can lobby, I can petition, I can call my representatives. I can support organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Organic Consumers Association, and Farmworker Justice–groups who are fighting against this almost impenetrable wall that protects industrial agriculture from the growing indignation of consumers.
But I must realize that it take will decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections. The recent GMO labeling battles in various states illustrate this all too vividly.
 Perhaps more immediately, however, I can take charge of my own dinner plate, defiantly placing on it only the foods which will support positive change.

It’s an easy challenge to state when the terms are left sufficiently vague. Let me be more specific, then, and present a more progressive tactic: I will place on my dinner plate only foods that are grown organically. Further, due to the accumulation of toxins, labor abuses, and other worker hazards—not to mention environmental degradation and a greatly imbalanced energy-to-calorie ratio–none of that food will be animal-based. I will employ an organic diet of plant-only foods. Not only at dinner, but for breakfast and lunch also.

It should be very plain to all of us: Eating is a much bigger act than simply putting food in one’s mouth. It is but one component of a tightly-integrated and interminable cycle. My eating must consider the well-being of soils, waterways, and workers. I can influence changes in the larger world by making changes in my very small world. When I sit at my table and regard all the people that provided my sustenance, one thing is very clear: rewarding a system that endangers them is grossly uncivil.

Is it all I can do? No, but it is something that everyone can do. And while it might take years for the industry to catch up, in the meantime I’m reinforcing the good that is out there, and I’m not empowering the bad. Individual actions do matter. They add up so much that even Wal-Mart—a corporation with a deplorable labor relations record–is quickly becoming a major player in the organic game. Which means that I will have more to learn, and more adjustments to make. The fight for civil rights is far from over, and it requires constant attention to detail. 

And by the way, the problem isn’t as far away as we might think. It’s as near as my dinner plate.

Additional Reading:

The SPLC report on civil rights education is here:

The SPLC also has a vast collection of writings regarding agricultural guest workers.

Civil rights are human rights, and Human Rights Watch provides other useful reports and suggested actions.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been fighting for agricultural laborers since 1993.
The National Center for Farmworker Health, at
Farmworker Justice, at
The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance
What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association
The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press