Conference focuses attention on Labor Across the Food System

Farm field worker graphic
A lot of attention is given to knowing where one's food comes from these days, but little thought is given to how it got there.
labor across the food system graphic

We spend a lot of attention on knowing where our food comes from, but give little thought to how it gets to us.

A free public conference at UC Santa Cruz February 3 and 4 will address the question of "Labor Across the Food System." Scholars, researchers, and activists from California and beyond will gather to discuss the role of labor and social justice in reshaping the contemporary global food system, one of the most labor-intensive industries in the economy.

"Food activism is the social movement of our time," said Mary Beth Pudup, a UCSC Community Studies professor, whose research focuses on community garden projects and who conceived of the conference. "Everyone talks about where your food comes from, but no one talks about who got it there.

"In my teaching and research it struck me over the years how separate the whole question of food justice and food access is from the question of labor," she said.

The conference will kick off Friday, February 3 at 7 p.m. at the Humanities Lecture Hall with a keynote address by Frank Bardacke, a Watsonville resident who cut celery and lettuce in the fields for six years in the early 1970s, and taught English as a second language teacher for 25 years. A labor activist and scholar, Bardacke is the author of Good Liberals and Great Blue Herons: Land, Labor and Politics in the Pajaro Valley and the recently published Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso Books, 2011).

The conference will continue Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., also at the Humanities Lecture Hall, with opening remarks by conference chair Pudup, Steve McKay, UCSC associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Labor Studies, and Julie Guthman, UCSC professor of community studies and co-director of a multi-campus research program on Food and the Body. Guthman's recent book, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (University of California, 2011) challenges many of the taken-for-granted assumptions about the so-called obesity epidemic and calls for more attention to injustices in food production.

Four panel discussions will follow on major sectors of labor in the food system: farm labor, food processing, shipping and retail, and food service and restaurants. Each panel will have a mix of scholars, journalists, and activists working on labor and food system issues.

The conference is presented by the Center for Labor Studies at UCSC in collaboration with the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) and the Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland. It is organized by the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research.

More information, including a list of participants and program schedule, may be found at or by calling 831-459-5655.

Major conference sponsors include the Food and the Body Multicampus Research Group, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Praxis Project, Prevention Institute, UCSC  Institute for Humanities Research, Community Studies Department, Environmental Studies Department, Sociology Department, Politics Department, Cowell College, Colleges Nine and Ten, and Oakes College. Additional financial support provided by the departments of American Studies, Anthropology, History, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Psychology.