What Am I Really Paying?

I am appalled. I’m disgusted. I’m outraged. And perhaps most of all, I’m ashamed. I have worked at the North Carolina Council of Churches for less than 10 hours, and already my life will never be the same.

I’m a student at Duke Divinity School earning my Master’s of Divinity so that I can one day be an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. One of our course requirements is to serve in a field education placement so that we get real world experience in ministry. As a ten-year veteran of the public school classroom, I thought I was well versed in what the real world was. And perhaps I do have a fairly good idea of the real world, but my world is Alaska. I’m heartbreakingly familiar with the issues of domestic violence, substance abuse, transiency, deployment, homelessness, and other situations that my students in Alaska face. But North Carolina is a whole other world.

In approximately 27 minutes, my understanding of food changed forever. All it took was viewing “Harvest of Dignity,” a retrospective film on “Harvest of Shame” from 1960 which highlighted the plight of migrant workers in America.

I am appalled. I’m disgusted. I’m outraged. The images of work camps nauseated me as I tried to image what it would be like to live in a room, a shack, a filthy, broken down, hazardous, bug infested building with almost no measure of sanitation.

As I watched, I started formulating plans. I’ll galvanize churches to adopt-a-camp. I’ll get teachers to do after school programs and doctors to make camp calls. We can organize baby sitting shifts so that parents who have to work in the fields can leave their children in loving hands. Heck, I’m a Methodist, we’re great at potlucks. We could have local United Methodist Women chapters cook lunch for the workers every day and get the guys with the Red Bull van to convert it to a water truck and cruise by camps. Let’s not stop at addressing the symptoms, let’s get volunteers to spend a day in the fields so that farm workers can have a day off!

As the video progressed, something changed in me. Rather than my idealistic-white-woman-speaking-from-a-position-of-privilege-so-I-think-I-can-save-the-world-singlehandedly stance, I started to feel … shame.

Shame that I have been completely unaware of this situation. Shame that I contribute to these horrible conditions through being unconscious of the source of my groceries. Ashamed that I value convenience in shopping over the dignity of a human being.

Shame. Shame that I, a Christian, who was taught the greatest commandment of all was to love God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself, did not even know I had a neighbor. I began to realize my ignorance. I don’t even know who migrant workers are, where they come from, how they got here, what protections they do or do not have. The issue of immigration has certainly been on the front page a lot the last couple of years, but I don’t know the rules governing immigration or guest workers or H2A or any of the other terms used to describe those brothers and sisters who pick our food and live in squalor and try to raise families who are not injured or sickened in body or mind or spirit from the work they endure.

This servitude, this virtual slavery, is not acceptable.

Why aren’t more people outraged about this? I think I know. Ignorance is bliss. At least mine was. I could happily go to Kroger/Food Lion/Harris Teeter/Target/where ever for my nicely trimmed and washed veggies without ever once considering the person who got their hands dirty picking it.

What am I really paying for groceries? It’s not about the price, it’s about the cost. I’m buying cheap produce at the cost of my brothers’ and sisters’ health, dignity, and wellbeing. And that cost is just too high. It is outrageous.

I can feel all the outrage in the world over the working and living conditions of migrant workers, but outrage does nothing more than give me heartburn. We need more than outrage. We need education. Who runs these camps? Who are the slave owners? Why are they allowed to treat human beings this way? How can I fight them with my debit card? Why aren’t there harsher punishments for those who violate regulations? Why aren’t there stricter regulations? Why do we allow children to slave away for our food?

Right now I have a lot more questions than answers, but I do know this: A seed of change has been planted. Within me. I hope within you. It’s time to start asking questions. It’s time to start educating ourselves. It’s time to feel a righteous anger that our brothers and sisters are being exploited. And it’s time to start holding those responsible accountable. Starting with ourselves.

Watch the video and learn how to get involved.

–Lisa Talbott, Duke Divinity School Intern



  1. Allen says

    I have been around a lot of beef operations over the last 30 years including our own. I have never seen a rancher use migrant workers for beef. Most migrant workers I know about work picking fruits and vegetables. They enter the country legally are paid less than minimum wage and then go back to Mexico. While less than minimum wage, it is a fair amount of money by Mexico standards or at least used to be. I have heard numerous people complain about the price of a head of lettuce going up by as much as a dollar, tomatoes more than a dollar, etc. That said, get rid of migrant workers or make farmers pay them minimum wage plus worker’s compensation, and health care benefits and think how much more your food will cost. Americans like low food prices and the government does not like those prices going up. Prices go up, migrant workers from another country make more money and take it back to Mexico and more of our citizens fall in to poverty or go hungry. I don’t have an answer only that no matter what decision would be made, someone wins and someone looses. I tend to favor America winning. Maybe someone can come up with a better solution.

  2. Dale Bailey says

    Ah, yes, the bleeding liberal heart, overwhelmed with guilt, amidst weeping and beating of the breast. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

    Enter into the real world and realize that some were born to serve, and others were born to be served. If the ones who are serving desire to do so not, then they should pursue others interests and occupations.

    • Lisa Talbott says

      Dale, thank you for your response. As a Christian, I see myself as one who was born to serve. If I can serve my brothers and sisters who are farm workers by doing something as simple as modifying my eating and shopping habits, then I am happy to do so. Peace, Lisa

  3. says

    I am appalled, right along with you. The first time I heard about the conditions of migrant workers was when I saw “Food, Inc.” a few years ago. The ways in which the U.S. would bring workers from Mexico, use them, abuse them and then make them leave with nothing just made me angry. I have become more aware of those companies, restaurants, fast food restaurants that purchase and sell food that is picked, grown and harvested by workers in abusive situations and I refuse to use these places. I, too, have refused to eat meat because of the abuse of, not only the animals, but also the workers who help produce the meat for sale. Thank you for bringing this to our attention once again.

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