BY SABRINE BRISMEUR ’22
On September 24, University of Vermont professor Teresa Mares gave a lecture entitled “A Renewed Call for Social Sustainability: Putting Worker Justice at the Center of Sustainable Food Systems” at Log Lunch. Discussing vulnerabilities in the American food system and using dairy farms of Vermont as a case study, Mares emphasized the relevancy of social sustainability in agriculture in the COVID-19 era and the need to better provide and advocate for Latinx farm workers.
“Are we sustaining systems of equity or systems that exclude? Are we sustaining possibilities or maintaining hunger as a status quo?” Mares asked, describing the three main pillars of sustainable food systems: social, economic, and environmental. Between each pillar is access to food, wise food production and distribution, and sustainable and healthy diets. She pointed out that these measurements of social sustainability are not as easily measurable as economic or environmental sustainability. However, social sustainability for America’s farmworkers — the wellbeing of those laborers closest to the agricultural system — should be the backbone of our food systems, while farmworkers are treated as “both essential and sacrificial.”
Using her fieldwork on dairy industries in Vermont for her book Life on the Other Border, Mares discussed the integral role of Latinx migrant workers in New England, as well as their border realities. As a significant farming state, Vermont-based migrant laborers are credited for keeping the vulnerable dairy industry afloat and providing 47% of New England’s milk supply. The dairy crisis comes as megacorporate consolidation has decimated the number of small, family-owned farms in the U.S. Yet about 90% of the estimated 1000 Latinx migrant laborers in Vermont are undocumented and separated from their communities, resulting in increased levels of hunger and poverty, as well as feelings of unsafety and isolation. Mares noted that Vermont extended $1200 stimulus checks to farmworkers only after pressure was put on the state, emphasizing the importance of activism and pushback.
Mares ended the talk by imagining ways to decolonize the current American food systems. Citing the work of Black, New York-based farmer and educator Leah Penniman, Mares reflected on the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous history and character of American food systems, the possibilities for connecting Latinx communities with healthier, traditional pre-Columbian diets, and potential opportunities to undo and challenge pervading colonial influences in our food systems. Looking to anti-racism, resistance to exploitation, and worker-driven social responsibility, Mares once again highlighted the importance of social sustainability for agricultural workers in the U.S. in her talk at Log Lunch.
Teresa Mares is an Associate Professor and Interim Chairperson at the Department of Anthropology, as well as the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Food Systems at the University of Vermont.