Farmworkers: the exploited, unappreciated feeders of the world

Linda Lee, an activist and former Lake Apopka farmworker, stands in front of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt.

Food is an integral part of human existence.

It is the fuel that sustains us as we go about our everyday lives. It is a cultural centerpiece, which feeds both body and soul. It is a precious commodity taken for granted by some, and inaccessible to many.

It is the foundation upon which society is built, though few take pause to recognize the extraordinary efforts of the architects.

Monday marked the second day of International Food Workers Week (IFWW). The founders, Food Chain Workers Alliance, hold IFWW annually during the week of Thanksgiving to educate people about the importance of food workers and encourage action.

That evening, three local organizations — Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farmworker Ministry (YAYA), Farmworker Association of Florida and Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) — hosted a program at UCF on the plight of Lake Apopka farmworkers.

If someone asked me a week ago about Lake Apopka and the abuses farmworkers suffered for generations, I would have been at a loss for words. I’d never heard of the place, let alone dared to seriously examine the systemic oppression of farmworkers in the United States and around the world.

Labor exploitation and the plethora of issues borne of capitalism in a nation built on the backs of enslaved people are topics of interest to me, hence the reason I joined the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP).

I have a long way to go in terms of my re-education — perhaps even more so as an individual only three generations removed from a life of toiling in the hot fields of a farm in South Carolina — and I decided to attend this particular farmworker justice event as part of this learning.

The two speakers, Jeannie Economos from the Farmworker Association of Florida and former Lake Apopka farmworker Linda Lee, discussed the total disregard for black and brown life exemplified by half a century of worker exploitation.

As Economos explained, Lake Apopka, a 45-minute drive from UCF, was initially used to increase food supplies for World War II soldiers. Systems of pumps were utilized in conjunction with fertilizers and pesticides for agricultural production.

By the 1960s, Lake Apopka was a shell of its former self due to environmental destruction.

Algal blooms choked off the ecosystem, depriving aquatic organisms of oxygen. In the ‘80s, the late Louis Guillette, an environmental scientist and professor at the University of Florida, discovered birth defects, endocrine disruption and low birth rates in area alligators. In the ‘90s, hundreds of birds died in a single migration season due to pesticide ingestion.

In spite of these environmental issues, the farms stayed open.

And for 50 years, mostly black, and later brown, children, parents and grandparents who worked the muck farms handled produce doused in everything from organochlorines, which remain in bodily tissues indefinitely and are linked to autoimmune suppression, to chlorpyrifos, a chemical that causes neurological damage. Cropdusters sprayed these chemicals as workers toiled, leading to ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption of pesticides long-since deemed dangerous.

The farms finally closed on May 31, 1998 after the 1996 Lake Apopka Improvement and Management Act led to the multimillion-dollar buyout and shuttering of the Lake Apopka farms.

Unsurprisingly, the nearly 3,000 farmworkers who suddenly found themselves out of a job didn’t see a cent, and the story of Lake Apopka lives on as a tale of gross negligence at best and genocide at worst.

Decades later, former workers, their children and their children’s children have lower life expectancies as they endure higher rates of lupus, diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, infant mortality, ADHD and learning disabilities, among other conditions.

Lee herself had a kidney transplant and battles lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself.

She is also raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren after prematurely burying her daughter and granddaughter, among other family members whose illnesses and deaths have yet to be quantitatively researched by the government.

To add insult to injury, retired workers are unable to collect Social Security benefits because of growers who used their employees’ measly pay for themselves.

Lake Apopka is the rule, not the exception.

Racism, labor exploitation, economic oppression, lack of access to affordable healthcare and cyclical poverty work in tandem to ensure America maintains a permanent underclass.

Recently, Scott Pruitt, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reversed efforts to ban chlorpyrifos. And the general population continues to bat a blind eye to these grave injustices.

But there are people who are fighting to alter this reality and keep the legacies of farmworkers who have since passed on alive.

We as people have a duty to stand in solidarity with marginalized communities and critically examine the historical narratives we are fed.

So much is at stake, as our struggles are and forever will be intertwined.