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Bringing farmworkers to the table

Since 1985, PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) has been advocating for the rights of Oregon farmworkers. Current President Ramon Ramirez recently visited Portland State University during a student organized event for Farmworker Awareness Week, a nationwide recognition of the ongoing struggle of farmworkers across the United States.

Based in the heart of the Willamette Valley in Woodburn, more than 5,000 members make up the organization, most of which are from Mexico or South America. According to Ramirez, nearly 300,000 farmworkers each year are poisoned by pesticides. Additionally, farmworkers in the U.S. have a 25 percent higher rate of cancer than the general population and an average life expectancy of only 49 years compared to 78. Medical professionals have also seen a rise of miscarriages among female farmworkers.  

“Farmworkers are literally dying to put food on our tables,” Ramirez said to a room of attentive students, “The pesticides don’t wash off as easily as we thought.”

There is a growing disconnect in the U.S. between consumers and their food—many people have no idea where their food actually comes from. And with the increase of processed foods in the American diet, rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have skyrocketed in the U.S.

“The external costs on our health, our schools, and our communities are finally catching up to us,” Ramirez said, “At the end of the day, who’s going to pay the bill for our kids being unhealthy?”

PCUN’s latest initiative is working with COSTCO, the third largest retailer in the U.S., to create a farmworker label—identifying foods that have been picked by workers who’ve been treated fairly by their employers. 

“We want to form a huge coalition comprised of retailers, growers, farmworkers, scientists, food and safety administrators, and advocates against pesticides to work together to make farmworker rights a reality in the context of the sustainable agriculture movement” Ramirez said.

As Oregon’s largest Latino organization, PCUN is bringing the conversation of farmworker rights to more and more dinner tables. Many of Portland’s citizens are consciously involved in the sustainable agriculture movement, but what about farmworker rights? As consumers, many of us have become informed about organic and natural foods. But we should also be asking about the farmworkers who help bring that food from the farm to the table.

Portland State’s Farmworker Awareness Week events and food court display were organized by a team of students who received a 2012 Solutions Generator grant from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

Grant Neely is a senior English major at Portland State.