Labor and the Locavore

Gray talked with students in the Gendebein Room at Skillman Library.

Gray talked with students in the Gendebein Room at Skillman Library.

When Margaret Gray ’90 spoke to the Lafayette community last month, she was accompanied by thousands of invisible exploited workers.

In researching her new book, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, Gray found that while consumers’ increased interest in buying farm-fresh produce has benefited small, local growers, farmworkers continue to suffer from the same difficult conditions that they did 100 years ago.

Through hundreds of interviews in the Hudson Valley, Gray discovered local farm workers had many of the same experiences as their factory farm counterparts—long hours; low pay, underpayment, and lack of overtime; extreme weather; substandard housing; pesticide exposure; job insecurity; and lack of respect.

An unexpected finding was the paternalism that serves as a form of labor control. “Workers I met were able to take home farm produce, drive farm vehicles, and house their non-farmworker wives and children on the farms; some even lived in farm-owned housing with free electricity and satellite television. To secure the continuation of these benefits, workers don’t complain, and they worry that if they do speak up they might lose the perks, or worse, be fired. They are acutely aware of the power dynamics.”

Gray’s interest in social justice has roots at Lafayette. She tutored at the Northampton County prison, completed an independent study on the politics of Haiti with the late Prof. John McCartney, and went on outreach trips to Haiti led by then-chaplain, Father Tom Hagan, who now runs Hands Together with Doug Campbell ’86. The course From Generosity to Justice showed her the value of activism over philanthropy.

A government and law graduate, Gray was on the track and field team. In 2013 she returned for a farewell gathering for long-time coach Julio Piazza, who began the same year she did.

Gray holds a Ph.D. in political science from City University of New York Graduate Center and is associate professor of political science at Adelphi University. Her book won the 2014 Best Book Award from Association for the Study of Food and Society and from Labor Project, American Political Science Association.

—Stevie O. Daniels