No One Eats Alone
6 x 9
6 x 9
In today’s fast-paced, fast food world, everyone seems to be eating alone, all the time—whether it’s at their desks or in the car. Even those who find time for a family meal are cut off from the people who grew, harvested, distributed, marketed, and sold the foods on their table. Few ever break bread with anyone outside their own socioeconomic group. So why does Michael Carolan say that that no one eats alone? Because all of us are affected by the other people in our vast foodscape. We can no longer afford to ignore these human connections as we struggle with dire problems like hunger, obesity, toxic pesticides, antibiotic resistance, depressed rural economies, and low-wage labor.
Carolan argues that building community is the key to healthy, equitable, and sustainable food. While researching No One Eats Alone, he interviewed more than 250 individuals, from flavorists to Fortune 500 executives, politicians to feedlot managers, low-income families to crop scientists, who play a role in the life of food. Advertising consultants told him of efforts to distance eaters and producers—most food firms don’t want their customers thinking about farm laborers or the people living downstream of processing plants. But he also found stories of people getting together to change their relationship to food and to each other.
There are community farms where suburban moms and immigrant families work side by side, reducing social distance as much as food miles. There are entrepreneurs with little capital or credit who are setting up online exchanges to share kitchen space, upending conventional notions of the economy of scale. There are parents and school board members who are working together to improve cafeteria food rather than relying on soda taxes to combat childhood obesity.
Carolan contends that real change only happens when we start acting like citizens first and consumers second. No One Eats Alone is a book about becoming better food citizens.
"Carolan has given us a book whose theme of building social relationships resonates in these times of disconnection across the global food chain...there is certainly a place at the table for No One Eats Alone."
Stanford Social Innovation Review
"Unlike many easy-fix food books touting local food as the answer, No One Eats Alone tackles both food and health from a systemic perspective. Its conclusions are likely to challenge eaters on all sides of the food conversation...No One Eats Alone is a singular specimen: a well-researched, thoughtful, and ultimately optimistic book on a popular subject that presents, and successfully defends, the point of view it expresses."
"[Carolan] has a gift for straightforward, conversational storytelling...Highly recommended."
"Beyond eye-opening, this meticulously researched, deeply compelling narrative is a call to action. The revelation within is that what we eat is profoundly social. And therein lie the seeds for the next food revolution. I doubt I'll eat or shop the same again."
Kathy Edin, author of "$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America"
"Since time immemorial, stories have been central to human communities. Michael Carolan is a beautiful storyteller, one whose words, as you will feel, are from the heart. And yet, Michael's words are also brilliantly rigorous and thoughtful. What else can I say?"
Bruno Sobral, Director, One Health Institute, Colorado State University
"In highly accessible prose and without resorting to the solipsism of popular food writers, Michael Carolan does what few food scholars have ventured: warmly engages readers to think about where their food comes from. This easy-to-digest book is chock-full of stealth lessons on topics ranging from the Green Revolution to food quality standards to food fortification to social science methods. Carolan invites readers to actively participate in the foodscape, recognizing that changing it will take collective action and not just fork-voting."
Julie Guthman, author of "Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism"
Introduction: Changing the Foodscape
Chapter 1. Monocultures of the Mind and Body
Chapter 2. Knowing Quality
Chapter 3. Shaping Values
Chapter 4. Spatial Distance Versus Social Distance
Chapter 5. One Health
Chapter 6. From Slow Food to Connectivity
Chapter 7. Buying Behaviors Versus Building Community
Chapter 8. Getting Big Versus Getting Together
Chapter 9. Conclusion: Becoming Citizens
Michael Carolan will discuss and sign his latest book No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise about becoming better food citizens.
In today's fast-paced, fast food world, everyone seems to be eating alone whether it's at their desks or in the car. Even those who find time for a family meal are cut off from the people who grew, harvested, distributed, marketed, and sold the foods on their table. Few ever break bread with anyone outside their own socioeconomic group.
So why does Carolan say that that no one eats alone? Because all of us are affected by the other people in our vast foodscape. We can no longer afford to ignore these human connections as we struggle with dire problems like hunger, obesity, toxic pesticides, antibiotic resistance, depressed rural economies, and low-wage labor. Carolan contends that real change only happens when we start acting like citizens first and consumers second.
Can't make it to the signing? Request an autographed copy here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tattered Cover Colfax Ave
2526 E Colfax Ave, Denver, CO 80206, USA
Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 6:00pm
We all find ourselves eating alone at our desks or in front of the TV — however it is time to change our ways. The problems (hunger, obesity, toxic pesticides and low-wage labor) that plague our bodies and our fields can be changed through interaction and relationships. Learn about how community farms, online exchanges and assisted machine repairs have been changing the food industry. When our agriculture period began, we grew together, lived together and ate together. Michael is here to tell us how to get back to the beginnings for a healthier future!
Michael Carolan's No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise is now available! We sat down with Carolan to talk about sustainable food, the process of writing the book, and why he claims that no one eats alone. Have more questions for Carolan? Share them in the comments below.
In today’s world, people are constantly eating alone—whether at their desk or in the car. So why do you claim that No One Eats Alone?
This claim ought to be among the book’s least contentious: that foodscapes are deeply peopled and that to eat is to be connected. People grow much of our food—most already know this. Less known is that people pick a lot of what we eat too, and slaughter, breed, transport, package, invent, cook, fortify, market, and sell it. There are even people tasked with coloring our food. I interviewed a gentleman while he held a color fan, like you would find at a paint store, that allows companies to custom order the color of their salmon (most requested No. 33, a nice rich pink). Then there are the people who study us so we’ll buy what their employer is selling.
No One Eats Alone was both thrilling and challenging to write because while it required interviewing more than 250 individuals from six continents, I only scratched the surface describing and explaining those connections. The real question lies in figuring out ways that better allow us to see and appreciate those connections, which brings us to the next question.
You argue that human connection is essential to achieving healthy, equitable, and sustainable food. At first, this may seem like a hokey or abstract concept. What does this look like, in practice? Can you give an example? Why is human connection essential to the success of food movements?
I am talking about having more than a human connection, actually. That’s part of the problem, that we conflate human connections with empathetic ones. We connect with humans all the time, but rarely as humans. A few years back I conducted what I refer to now as the strawberry study. I had a group of middle class eaters of different political persuasions get together over strawberries, once to watch a documentary about the industry and again to pick in the field for an entire day.
After watching the documentary, participants were able to recite certain facts, like top strawberry growing US states and countries and that the pesticide methyl bromide was being phased out in California. Having spent a day picking, however, they could not only talk about labor activities, they could feel them. When interviewed a few days later, the physicality of the experience came through—more than one use to term moved, as in “I was really moved by that experience”—shaping how they thought about the industry and those who toil so we can eat “cheap” strawberries. My point: there are different ways to connect with others as humans. It would be hokey to think we need to meet everyone in our foodscapes in order to know and empathize with them.
What role do racism, sexism, and other –isms play in our current food problems?
These –isms pervade society, so it would be foolish to say they do not also exist in our food worlds. Food is often discussed in gender-neutral terms, which is ridiculous when you consider who’s peopling our foodscapes—often women, especially when talking about who buys food and cooks it. So when well intentioned health professionals and food writers—sorry Michael Pollan—make recommendations like “Just cook” or “Plant a garden” I cringe because they reflect an insensitivity to the realities of who is doing what, especially among those struggling under the weight of time poverty.
I give examples throughout the book of how we can create alternative foodscapes that are sensitive to these realities, like community-based cooking classes or urban gardens that provide free childcare or elementary school experiential curriculum centered around food that work to disrupt traditional gendered norms at a very young age. I also tell stories about food and community activists working to avoid creating environments were eaters only eat “white”—a typical European diet. If we are what we eat, then we must make sure that the alternative foodscapes we help nurture recognize the diversity of those who are hungry.
You prefer the term “foodscape” to the more familiar “food system,” and you argue that we need to shift from a society of food “consumers” to one of food “citizens.” What are the differences between these terms? What power does language have to change the way we think about our relationship to food? To change the way we behave?
I opt for the term foodscape instead of the more familiar food system because the latter is too narrow for what I have in mind, often reducing the life of food to a commodity chain—producers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers. The hows and whys of food are more complex than that, involving questions of power, culture, relationships, feelings, citizenship, and more.
Relatedly, food consumers have a clear predefined location in that commodity chain, with clear predefined interests, namely, getting the best deal. But to be human, and to connect with other humans as humans, is to be more than just a consumer. We do not just buy stuff. We have lives outside retail markets, filled with families, loved ones, interests, and passions. We all live in a community, somewhere, perhaps in a rural community grappling with poverty and community disintegration. We all also live on this planet and do not want to see it destroyed. And, like or not, we’re all taxpayers and members of a social contract. Those interests are felt as citizens, not consumers. Terms like “foodscape” and “food citizen” are thus used to challenge readers to think about food and their relationship to it in new ways by telling stories about people connecting with others and the planet.
What are two actions someone can take to become a better food citizen? After that, where can they look for more guidance?
I am a big believer in the power of getting people from different backgrounds—economic, ethnic, religious, political, etc.—together. A recent Gallup study reveals that the best predictor of whether individuals support things like building a wall between the US and Mexico and who believe non-whites have not contributed as much to civilization as those of European descent is how white their social networks are. This also speaks to why I repeatedly take critics of the status quo to task whenever I hear them valorize spatial distance, as if that’s the endgame, the creation of something like a bikeable foodscape. I have seen plenty of “local” foodscapes crippled by social distance—there was a farmers’ market in a gated community, true story.
So what can you do? Work in a community garden or a soup kitchen. Join a cooperative. With others in your community, organize free cooking classes, making sure to supply childcare and transportation, if possible. Remember, we’ll never learn to break bread with someone different from ourselves if we can’t even stand having “them” in our community.
No One Eats Alone take a critical look at Big Food, as well as alternative food movements encouraging people to “eat local” or “eat organic,” but you are ultimately hopeful about the future of our foodscape. What gives you that hope?
My hope is not unfounded. I have been studying food since the late 1990s. During that time, I have seen a flourishing of alternative foodscapes around the world. Here are some data explaining my optimism: there were 8,268 farmers' markets operating in 2014, up 180 percent since 2006; since 2007, the number of food hubs — local groups that connect farmers to food-using businesses — increased by roughly 300 percent; and since 2006, the number of school districts with farm-to-school programs jumped almost 500 percent.
But those are just numbers. The real source of my optimism is experience, talking with the likes of students, young farmers, and food and community activists. The rate and intensity of these conversations increases with every passing year. I dare say anyone who reads No One Eats Alone will leave it more hopeful than when they started.
You interviewed over 250 people for this book. Is there a particular conversation or story that sticks out in your mind?
When you talk to that many people you end up with quite a collection of memorable stories. I regularly retell the story of my meeting with a gentleman who had worked many years for a Chinese company in charge of supplying most of the world’s vitamin D. Here was a company whose mission was to make the world healthier and yet most of our interview was spent discussing how unhealthy the industrial vitamin process in China was—polluting, exploitive, and energy intensive. I had a lot of great conversations like that, where you start out thinking one way and leave with your head spinning.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
For a lot of readers, I expect they will discover that what they thought they knew about food, and about solutions to our food-based ills, were woefully incomplete in their reach and scope. Everyone will find nourishment in the countless examples where issues like hunger, malnutrition, food access, sustainability, and social justice are being tackled to benefit all and not just the one percent. And from that nourishment I hope to help spawn a desire to change the way we organize around food.
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
While researching No One Eats Alone, sociologist Michael Carolan interviewed more than 250 individuals, from flavorists to Fortune 500 executives, politicians to feedlot managers, low-income families to crop scientists, who play a role in the life of food. Advertising consultants told him of efforts to distance eaters and producers—most food firms don’t want their customers thinking about farm laborers or the people living downstream of processing plants. But he also found stories of people getting together to change their relationship to food and to each other. Ultimately, it is a book about becoming better food citizens, and a story of hope: "Unlike many easy-fix food books touting local food as the answer, No One Eats Alone tackles both food and health from a systemic perspective. Its conclusions are likely to challenge eaters on all sides of the food conversation...No One Eats Alone is a singular specimen: a well-researched, thoughtful, and ultimately optimistic book on a popular subject that presents, and successfully defends, the point of view it expresses" (Foreword).
Check out an excerpt from the book below.
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
Earlier this year, if you had asked me to tell you what a “gardener” looked like, I might have painted you a mental picture of someone not unlike my father: a white, middle-aged man who decided to take up gardening as a hobby after realizing he had more empty space in his rural Texas backyard than he knew what to do with. After spending a weekend shadowing the nation’s largest garden-building event, however, I have to admit that my idea of who a “gardener” is and what a “garden” looks like has dramatically changed.
Now, I’m more apt to picture an African American mother and daughter in the city, growing vegetables in a 4’x8’ victory garden and using their culinary skills to provide sustenance to malnourished neighbors. Or I might tell you about the Syrian refugee families using a small patch of soil in their front yard as a way to bring back a sense of normalcy to their uprooted lives.
And yet these were just two of the countless “faces of gardening” that I encountered during this spring’s annual Victory Garden Blitz in Milwaukee. Organized by the local non-profit Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), the annual Blitz aims to engage Milwaukee residents to grow their own food, and in the process help cultivate a community-based, socially just, environmentally sustainable food system. With the help of over 300 volunteers, VGI manages to install hundreds and hundreds of raised bed gardens to residents of diverse backgrounds and housing situations each year; no backyard needed! All that’s required is a 4’x8’ outdoor space to put the garden, and a willingness to get your hands a little dirty!
“One of the great things about gardening is that it brings people of all faiths and political backgrounds and races and ethnicities together,” VGI Community Programs Manager Kelly Moore Brands told me during the event. “Because everybody needs to eat, right?”
Beyond the diversity of the gardeners themselves, one of the other noteworthy things was the sheer variety of reasons why people took up urban gardening in the first place. Here are just a few of the things I heard while out and about in Milwaukee:
After a weekend of memorable quotes and colorful characters, I really got a sense of what Island Press author Michael Carolan identifies as the crucial missing ingredient from our current food movements: human connection. In his new book No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise, Carolan argues that building community is the key to healthy, equitable, and sustainable food.
Victory Garden Initiative is doing just that, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for their big 10th anniversary Blitz in 2018 as they continue the food movement to MOVE GRASS and GROW FOOD!
For more on my exciting, inspiring weekend in Milwaukee, check out the video below where I interview VGI staff and victory garden recipients about the power and promise of urban gardening.
Want to experience the magic of Milwaukee yourself? Don't forget to enter our fall sweepstakes for a chance to win a farm & food trip for two to Milwaukee!
Kyler Geoffroy is the Online Marketing Manager for Island Press
On the heels of nutritional literacy campaigns, restaurants, grocery stores, and health officials are busy promoting the benefits of nutritious foods to encourage people to choose them. There is a significant problem with that strategy, however: it risks turning people away from these foods, as eaters tend to rate foods they perceive as healthier as less tasty. So why not draw upon some of the same language used to describe, say, sizzling crispy bacon to talk about a zucchini dish? Sizzling crispy zucchini anyone?
In a recent article for Fast Company, Adele Peters describes research findings that reveal that our use of words and descriptions of foods shape choices and dietary behaviors. It is certainly makes sense that we should not expect people to choose healthy foods if they are not described in ways that align with what we are motivated to eat. But why stop there? Once we start talking about our veggies, beans, and fruits using tastier descriptors, what then? Sizzling crispy zucchini or sizzling crispy bacon? To me, both sound delicious. But While Peters’ article, The Simple Menu Innovations that Science Says Can Get People to Order Vegetarian Options, speaks of getting people to order vegetarian options, really the goal should be about something larger. In addition to what Peters is urging, we should also be asking how do we draw eaters to vegetarian options more often once we make those dishes sound like something even meat eaters would enjoy?
Not long ago I conducted research, bits of which I later published in a peer-reviewed article and in my book No One Eats Alone, which involved interviewing roughly 100 eaters, twice: first, just before they engaged in alternative food practices (e.g., farmers markets, community supported agriculture arrangements, food cooperatives) and again, after two years of exposure to these spaces. I was curious about how these experiences shaped participants’ feelings about food. I discovered that while many spoke about taste and health as principle reasons for trying in these offerings when first interviewed, those justifications changed by the time of the second interview, and as I previously described, I was able to link directly to their continued involvement in these alternative food practices. For most, the new or revised rationale for eating these foods and buying from these networks centered on wanting to support local growers and communities; quite a few also justified buying these foods for reasons related to environmental sustainability.
Our food systems, or what I prefer to call foodscapes, can pull us in different directions, leading us to exhibit extrinsic and/or intrinsic values.
Extrinsic values, those that pull us inward, concern social standing and self-advancement. People with deeply held extrinsic values are likely to obsess over financial success, status, and fame. Conversely, intrinsic values, those that lead us outward, concern finding worth and reward with and through the support of, rather than at the expense, of others. Research suggests that when individuals place greater importance on extrinsic values they are more likely to express prejudice toward others, be less concerned about the environment, human rights, and animal welfare, and express lower levels of personal wellbeing and happiness. Can you guess about which values advertisers tend to target?
I mention this because Peters links taste to indulgence, asserting that we need to make healthy food sound more pleasurable and hedonistic. I counter that in looking for solutions to poor nutrition, for ways to encourage people to try or eat more vegetarian options, we need to think about the type of eaters we seek to create while being aware of those we might unintentionally create. In turning people on to vegetarian options, we should avoid unintentionally creating eaters who think only about themselves when making dietary decisions. For example, while we want them to eat properly for their health, we also would like them to incorporate thoughts of how their eating impacts community health.
This brings me back to my study: how we engage with food and those responsible for producing it matters greatly in shaping our feelings about what we ought to eat and why we ought to be eating it. I offer that we should be able to agree that while we do aim to create healthier eaters, we also seek to develop eater-citizens who give a damn about whether that sizzling crispy zucchini was picked under exploitive labor conditions or produced using methods that were unsustainable.
Don't forget to enter our Farm & Food Sweepstakes and win a trip for two to Milwaukee and be inspired by what the people of this great city have accomplished. Increase your chances of winning by sharing the sweepstakes on social media to gain additional entries.
Dr. Carolan is Associate Dean for Research for the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University.
It can seem like every news story spells bad news for the environment—from the ongoing clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan to Earth's hottest summer ever recorded. But it's not all doom-and-gloom. With so many dedicated people working on environmental issues, there are also stories of hope. We asked Island Press authors to share good news in their field. Check out the inspiring stories they shared below and if you know of other environmental success stories, share them in the comments.
Last summer, mussel biologists and crew worked to relocate over 100,000 mussels, many federally protected, prior to the construction of the I-74 bridge over the Mississippi River. There's also the creation of the Fairmount Water Works' Mussel Hatchery in Pennsylvania, and the proposed listing of the yellow lance mussel as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. While it's sad that the mussel needs to be listed, the act of listing it means that its habitat (which is significant!) might benefit from more protections. Better to list a declining species than to ignore it. There's also this video of mussel sexy time, which is awesome, if not newsy.
Left behind by the globalized economy, Buffalo New York has lost more than half its population since 1950. By 2005, when the community group People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo was founded, West Side residents were struggling with unemployment, rampant blight and high energy costs.
At that time, there were an estimated 23,000 vacant homes in Buffalo. PUSH took on a state housing agency that was using vacant buildings to speculate on Wall Street, and got the buildings turned over to the community—with funding to fix them up. Next, PUSH brought together hundreds of community residents to craft a plan for a large, blighted area. The result is a 25-square block Green Development Zone (GDZ) that is now a model of energy efficient, affordable housing. PUSH and its non-profit development company rehabilitate homes in the GDZ, installing efficiency upgrades like insulation and geothermal heating that dramatically lower residents’ utility bills. PUSH also won a New York State grant to build 46 new homes—including a “net zero” house that produces as much energy as it consumes.
The GDZ doubles as a jobs program. Through its construction projects, PUSH has cultivated a growing network of contractors who are committed to hiring locally. And PUSH successfully advocated for New York’s Green Jobs - Green New York program, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing energy upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.
Excerpted from an Urban Resilience Project piece in Yes! Magazine by Taj James and Rosa Gonzales
There have been a gazillion studies which say how cycling is good for public health, but one new one is a biggie—with a sample size of more than 250,000 Brits—and led to global media coverage. The Scottish study was published in the British Medical Journal and, staggeringly, it said cycling to work lowers the risk of dying by 40 percent. If medical science created a pill with that sort of impact it would be quickly bigger than Viagra! Cancer is a huge worry for the Western world, yet cycling to work halves your chance from dying from it. Amazing, really.
If you go back to the first 100 years of this nation, our food system was built on people sharing seeds. That was, in fact, the *only* way new seeds were acquired—that and saving seeds from the prior year's harvest. Seed saving and sharing is not only becoming a lost art, it is also illegal in certain instances.
For example, take the case, from 2014, when the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed a seed library in its state that they were in violation of a 2004 state law—the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004. The seed library, its officials were told, fell under the definition of a “seed distributor,” which meant they needed to start acting like one. That required that they meet stringent labeling requirements. The labels, which need to be in English, must clearly state the name of the species or commonly accepted name of kind of plant. If it is a hybrid plant, the label must explain something about whether the seed has been treated. Lastly, labels must include the name and address of the seed-sharing entity. As a seed distributor, the library was also told they must conduct germination and purity analyses.
On a more encouraging note: In September 2016, the Seed Exchange Democracy Act (Assembly Bill 1810) was signed into law in California. The bill amends the “seed law” chapter of the state’s Food and Agricultural Code thus exempting seed libraries from burdensome testing and labeling requirements.
The Sustainable Economic Law Center offers a toolkit of resources to help concerned citizens make the Seed Exchange Democracy Act a reality in their own state. It includes sample legislation, local resolutions, letters of support, and more.
Restoration ecology and our book on its foundations support new pathways for restoring watersheds to protect wetlands. After decades of teaching conservation and restoration of ecosystems, I'm using the wisdom captured in our book to practice what I've been preaching. I'm one of the fortunate few who have wetlands in our back yards. I live near intact natural ecosystems among citizens who tax themselves so our township can purchase development rights and create conservation easements. The challenge is to extend voluntary approaches upstream to achieve watershed restoration goals and protect downstream wetland gems. The solution won't be top-down governance in this state—or in this country at the present time—but the solution could be bottom-up watershed-care based on strong science and wetland ethics.
To me the really big and encouraging news is that ecosystem restoration is understood increasingly as a central component of global efforts to reverse anthropogenic climate change. This means that the streams of ecological restoration, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, and climate action are fusing, creating a powerful incentive to both protect and restore ecosystems which are absorbing at least a quarter of all GHG emissions annually (for an essay on this, see Ecosystems are critical to solving the global climate crisis).
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Commentary Was Originally Published September 7, 2017 in The New Food Economy.
President Trump rode to the White House on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment — stirred by his frequently repeated claim that undocumented immigrants are (among other things) “stealing our jobs.”
Putting aside the hype and the hate, consider agriculture — the sector of our economy that employs the highest percentage of undocumented workers. American citizens are not exactly clamoring for these jobs: One study found that less than 0.1 percent of “legal” job seekers asked to be referred for farm jobs, and of those, less than half reported to work on the first day.
A couple of years back, while in the thick of conducting research for my book, No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise, I got to thinking that people who believe immigrant laborers are stealing our jobs have never picked strawberries for a living. That stray thought led me to what I now call the “strawberry study,” in which a dozen Coloradans from middle-class and higher economic backgrounds got schooled on what it takes to put fresh fruit on their table.
To understand and appreciate where participants ended up, it helps to know a bit about their backgrounds. All lived in or near Fort Collins, Colorado, a community of roughly 165,000 people located 65 miles north of the Colorado State Capital in Denver. Household salaries of this group ranged from $80,000 to $175,000 a year — not an especially rich group, but far from poor. (At the time, medium annual household incomes for the area hovered around $62,000 and average home sale prices had just topped $310,000.) While ethnically homogenous (everyone self-identified as “white”), education levels spanned the gamut: Two never went beyond high school; some reported having two year vocational degrees; still others possessed four-year university degrees, and beyond. Jobs reported included car sales, registered dietician, electrician, computer technician, accountant, real estate agent, and high school science teacher. Age range: twenty-five to fifty-six.
When interviewed initially, the participants knew very little about how strawberries get from farm to market. Not one could accurately state where strawberries from their neighborhood store came from, which also meant none knew who did the picking. A few mentioned the terms illegals and aliens; Jeff (the electrician) even went so far as to suggest that “they’re stealing our jobs.”
Later they were shown a documentary, which at least taught them the names of the top strawberry-producing locations in the U.S. and Mexico and some of the labor conditions common during the harvesting process.
But while they learned to talk about the labor considerations involved in industrial strawberry production, it was not until we all picked strawberries together for seven hours that some participants seemed to feel differently about the effort that goes into harvesting this food. (A lesson for educators the world over: It is often not enough to simply tellpeople to think, act, or eat differently.)
The day began at sun-up, at approximately 6 o’clock. Gathering together in a circle, drinking coffee and eating donuts — a little incentive to pull them out of bed at that early hour — I immediately noticed everyone’s attire. When we last met, I asked that they dress in layers — men in work boots, if they had them. All were told to bring something to cover their heads, like a baseball cap or bandana. While the day was forecasted to be hot, I reasoned that if they were to experience a day in the life of a strawberry picker it would not hurt to dress like one.
The local weatherwoman was right. By early afternoon, the weather app on my phone registered a cloudless 88 degrees. Participants could be seen scattered across the four-acre field, all bent at the same 90 degree angle, a stance that allowed them to pick with both hands. They had seen that picking position weeks earlier when shown the documentary and were asked to replicate it that day. With the hot sun overhead — rays that are especially intense at 5,000 feet elevation — those bent backs had all but disappeared. Before breaking for lunch, many could be seen working from their knees, a few were sitting, and one was experimenting with an all-fours picking position. The day ended at two in the afternoon, though in truth the actual picking ended earlier as participants found conversation a suitable distraction from the heat.
A week later, after lower backs had time to heal, I met individually with the participants to discuss their experience out in the field. Most talked about being “moved” by the experience. Some painfully so. In the words of Jeff, who made the earlier remark about job theft, “The work was hard as hell!” More than half of the group admitted that the experience gave them pause and led them to think about those who toil, often invisibly, so we can eat.
Participants were also instructed to take pictures while picking. Initially, images were overwhelmingly of people and landscapes: very generic, about nothing in particular other than to chronicle who was there and what the general experience looked like. But as the day progressed, so did the feel of the photographs. By late afternoon, there were selfies of sweaty faces and wet, matted hair; one of a sweat ring in a baseball hat; a pair of soil-stained bare knees; and trays at various stages of fullness held by fingers caked with dirt and stained red.
By the day’s end everyone had taken photos documenting their physical exertion. For in the end it was precisely that “hard as hell” work that stuck with them long after we left the field for our respective middle-class homes. That work, as I learned during the exit interviews, even made some reevaluate what they thought about the people doing the work so we can eat “fresh” fruits and vegetables. Rebecca, the real estate agent, swore off “industrial strawberries,” vowing in the future to buy only local. Another claimed to have bought only Fair Trade strawberries since that day in the field. As for Jeff, the gentleman who had unapologetically called immigrant laborers “illegals,” he described how that day “softened” his stance on national immigration policy. “We need them to feed us,” he admitted sheepishly.
To put the matter plainly, the experience, for some, created empathy.
Social distances have grown so great in countries like the United States that bringing people together for face-to-face encounters is becoming a real challenge. Forget about getting people around the same table to eat; even getting them to meet in a room is harder than ever. We know, for example, that people with higher social status generally ignore those with less power, a dynamic that has been observed in numerous studies.
But I am hopeful. We need to figure out how to heal today’s social divisions in our politics — heck, in our society. Perhaps we can learn from the strawberry study.
They’re stealing our jobs! Spoken just like someone who has never met, let alone worked like an immigrant laborer — even if just for a day.
Dr. Carolan is Associate Dean for Research for the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University.