“Farm-to-table” has been a popular movement for years, with restaurants adopting the label and creating menus boasting an abundance of fresh, local ingredients. Yet even as the public dines on this thoughtfully prepared food, many do not consider one critical link in the food chain between the farm and the table: the farmworker.
Maggie Gray, PhD, associate professor and chair of Adelphi’s Department of Political Science, has spent the majority of her career listening to the life stories of farmworkers—a group whose voices she says are often not part of the farm-to-table conversation—and advocating for their rights.
“When several food movements took off in the early 2000s, I was interested in the focus on the livelihoods of smaller farmers, the protection of open space, reducing food miles and keeping food dollars in the state,” Dr. Gray said. “At the same time, I was shocked again and again as local food was heralded as a sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture, yet nobody was mentioning the situation of workers.”
She says that there’s been a romanticization of local farms in the United States that harkens back to a long history of casting farmers as rural heroes—but that also plays a role in masking subpar work conditions of the farm laborers. In her book Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, published in 2013 by the University of California Press, Dr. Gray took aim at the local food movement to reveal the everyday struggles of New York’s farmworkers. The product of a decade of in-depth interviews she held with workers, farmers and others, the book focuses on the political, social and economic dynamics of food in the Hudson Valley in New York and shines a light on the unseen labor concerns of its workforce.
“Years ago while working at the National Labor Committee, an anti-sweatshop organization, I learned the importance of sharing the stories of hidden workers—those whose labor and possible exploitation are behind our everyday purchases,” she said. “That experience would become the basis of my research.”
Dr. Gray’s conversations with farmworkers have continued. She co-authored a report released this month, “The New York Farmworker: Hours, Wages & Injuries,” which analyzes the results of 530 surveys with New York state farmworkers on more than 100 farms to offer an understanding of their on-the-job injuries, compensation for lost work time, working hours, wages and the implementation of a 2019 overtime provision. This is the largest number of the state’s seasonal and year-round farmworkers to ever participate in a single survey.
With this report, Dr. Gray continues her effort to give voice to the concerns of a population that has been absent in the public conversation about policies that shape their own employment—in many cases because these workers are not American citizens. “Because many of these workers are undocumented or guest workers, they have good reason to refrain from speaking up about potentially unsafe or unfair work conditions,” she says. “They fear retaliation from their employers in the form of cuts to their hours, loss of their jobs or from immigration authorities.”
The report by Dr. Gray, et. al., highlights farm injuries as a primary concern in New York and nationwide, with farmworkers having fewer safety protections on the job and less access to medical care. Forty-nine percent who could not work due to an injury report not receiving payment for lost work time or for medical bills. In many cases, workers do not pursue worker’s compensation or sick leave, often due to lack of knowledge, language barriers or fear. And while the vast majority report being paid at least the minimum wage, a quarter of workers logging more than 60 hours a week reported wage theft—they were not paid time and a half for overtime hours worked.
In telling workers’ stories, Dr. Gray hopes she can help to move the public to action and inform policy decisions. “I’ve heard from many folks that my research, public scholarship and testimony have contributed to policy changes to improve the conditions of farmworkers in New York state, which is very rewarding,” she said. “I’m also proud to help reshape mindsets—I was once interviewed on a Brooklyn-based food radio program, and the host said that although she and her peers thought they had been doing everything right to promote food justice, reading my book very much altered her perception.”
Dr. Gray says she is one of many who have played a role in improving work conditions for farmworkers. Lawyers, advocates at the grassroots level, labor unions and, importantly, the workers themselves have all worked to effect change.
In 2020, when collective bargaining protections were extended to New York’s farmworkers, an entirely new area of research and learning opened up for her. “For many years, New York farmworker advocates have worked in coalition to push for new policies,” Dr. Gray said. “I feel honored to be part of that group—I did not imagine that my work in this area would continue for more than 23 years, but I continue to learn from farmworkers and am compelled to tell their stories.”
At Adelphi, Dr. Gray’s Food Politics course devotes three weeks to U.S.-based food workers, an ideal forum for sharing her own research with students. Her scholarship also makes an appearance in her Race and Politics course.
“Teaching using examples outside of the course materials and seeing my passion for the topic helps students become more engaged,” she said. “As a political scientist, I am always returning to the topic of power in all of my courses. I find that sharing real-life stories about those who are not using (or feel they cannot use) their power, as well as the successes of workers who used their power to create change, can help students better understand course materials and reflect on the power dynamics in their own lives.”