Food Sovereignty: An Interview with Edgar Franks

Illustration of a hand firmly grasping an ear of corn
March 27, 2018
Eric Rivera

Edgar Franks is an organizer with the social justice organization Community to Community Development (C2C), from Bellingham, Washington. In this interview, he provides an overview of goals in advocating for the equitable treatment of farm workers as well as for a radical change in how we view our agricultural and food production systems.

Eric Rivera: Can you explain the major goals of Community 2 Community?

Edgar Franks: Some of our goals are pretty big. People seem to think they are unrealistic. We're talking about creating a new economy that is different than capitalism. One that centers equity and justice for everyone. [A world] where workers or the Earth aren't exploited. Coming from farmworker backgrounds, we want to uplift the farmworker's voice in this new economy. Traditionally, farmworkers have been excluded from decision making or [are] just afterthoughts when it comes to policies. You know, when people think of food the last thing they think of is the labor that it took to produce. Obviously, [the organizers] live in an agricultural area, so we want to make sure that the voice of farmworkers and their intellect and knowledge is respected and uplifted. Those are some of our goals. [We want to create] a whole new economy that centers farmworkers and poor people and [others] who are traditionally excluded from decision-making, or who are made to feel powerless. We want to flip the tables on that and let people know that we actually do have power because without workers, none of this would be possible. No economy would be possible if there [weren't] workers. Big businesses wouldn’t exist without workers. The food system wouldn't exist without farmworkers. We just want to have equity and the same power as the big corporations, but we're just seen as pieces of a big machine that can be easily replaced. [We want to do] all of that and bring back humanity into the food system.

Eric Rivera: One of Community 2 Community stated goals is Food Sovereignty-the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Why is this important to your organization?

Edgar Franks: This goes back to creating something new. Right now as it is, I think there is a lack of vision of what we can do to change the system. We see all the things that are wrong. We see the exploitation of labor, we see the exploitation of land and pollution, and all these bad things that are happening. As people [involved] in the food system, [we want] to do our part to change the food system. Food sovereignty is a way that we can articulate this vision and talk about what it is to produce food without exploitation. It's possible, because other places are doing it. It also opens up a bigger discussion about how people can take back control of their life. For the most part, people feel powerless whether it be at a job or at school that things can change. Food sovereignty opens up [a] conversation [about the] practice [of] real democracy and a whole new way of participating in a political system that excludes people. Food sovereignty brings together groups to talk about how to produce and how to work together in a participatory democratic way. Its also a way [for] communities not just to grow food justly but also how to practice democracy with one another. It's also linked to a much bigger struggle around the world. Corporation and big business are dominating everything in the food system. Monsanto, Dole, all these mega food corporations; Amazon just bought Whole Foods. The market and our food system is being dominated by capitalism and neoliberal ideologies that don't prioritize workers or the environment, or the wellbeing of the planet. It's centered on making money and profits. We want to show that there is another way if workers are allowed to lead and to make decisions for themselves. We can take the power back from these big businesses and corporations. Corporations now are starting to buy land and plant mono-crops and things that are commodities to feed into a consumer culture. Food sovereignty doesn't prioritize consumer culture, it prioritizes people and human dignity.

Eric Rivera: How does farmworker justice play a role in food sovereignty?

Edgar Franks: I'm going talk about it within the context of the United States. Farmworkers are at the lowest or the bottom rung when it comes to the food system. [Though] its not just in the United States, or Washington, its around the world. You go anywhere around the world and look at farmworker's conditions and they're usually the poorest people in those countries. Washington state is no exception. Farmworkers are the poorest, you know, the most marginalized almost to the point of being invisible. Farmworkers have a lot to say when it comes to changing the food system because without the labor that we provide, none of the food that comes to the supermarkets would be there. We get to bear the brunt of the industrial food system. We get the pesticides, we get all the chemicals on our skin. Our kids are still allowed to work in the fields. Its legal to have 12-year olds working in the fields. We get to see all the things that are wrong with the food system. We also not only know what's wrong, we know what the solutions are. It doesn't make sense for one company to dominate a whole industry. We feel that farmworkers, when it comes to food justice, the best way we can participate [with them] is by creating and forming our own unions and workers associations to uplift our labor [so that] people can recognize the value of [our] labor. I think, just by that, farmworkers play an important role within food justice and food sovereignty. I think for a long time labor has just been seen as, you know, who can work for the cheapest. There's always a competition because we all need jobs. People will basically work for free just to have a job. It makes us compete against ourselves and increases division within the community. I think we're in the position where there is actually a lot we can do together [rather than] being separated and disorganized. If we organized and unified, we actually do have a lot of power. Farmworkers play a vital role in moving the system into something more just. We've seen that first hand here with the unions that are forming, the different conversations that are starting to change [things] at the local level. Farmworkers are now actually brought up when people talk about the food system, whereas before when people thought about the food they were eating they wanted to know if it was a local farmer [or] if it was organic, things like that. Now, [I think] people need to know that just because its organic or if it comes from a local farmer, that does not mean the workers are treated with the justice and care that they need. Now people are starting to rethink and hear from farmworkers themselves about the conditions and how to change them.

Eric Rivera: Can you explain your involvement with the campaign that Familias Unidas por La Justicia organized against Sakuma Bros. Farms?

Edgar Franks: My involvement was at first a support role. The farmworkers needed to go to meetings, I would just drive them around, take them from place to place. I did translation and stuff like that. But I think as the campaign intensified, my role changed a little bit. I was now one of the few people who could travel around the country to talk about the campaign, and to lift up the struggle, I would talk about boycotts, about the union. I would talk about a lot of things we needed support in and the workers needed support [in] to advance the campaign. I would tie it into other things to, like how [badly] the food system treats its workers. I tried to create a network of support and solidarity with grassroots organizations, with unions, with faith-based groups Eventually, I started being out in the fields with the workers, [working closely] with Familias Unidas. I worked with Ramon Torres, he's the president of the union. I would follow his lead when we were out in the field, organizing with the workers. We would go to worker's houses, and I would support him when he needed anything. We were working as a team. I did various roles for the campaign for the union contract. Eventually, it all paid off. All the work we did, the solidarity from everybody across the nation helped. It was successful, and I think it's a turning point in our local area because more and more farmworkers know there is now a union there that can help and support anything that they need. Whereas before, there was just a really big void.

Eric Rivera: How do you think racism plays a role in the farm labor industry and the fight for food sovereignty?

Edgar Franks: You cannot talk about the agricultural system in the United States without talking about racism. The system was set up this way from the very beginning. Not only [was it] racist, it was exploiting poor people. [There was] the exploitation of black labor by bringing in African people to work as slaves [to support] the agricultural economy in the United States. [It] was all done by black people. Native Americans were also put to work. Filipinos, Indian folks, people from Japan and China [were put to work.] Now Mexicans are [coming in as] farmworkers. So the agricultural system benefitted from racism by always having people of color being the ones that are economically disadvantaged [and] by keeping people poor. There is historical proof that racism has always been very much entwined into the food system. So if you go to any farm in the United States, if you go to any processing plant, almost any restaurant you go to you see people of color and immigrants working those jobs. So I think it's very much intentional to keep certain populations down and make them feel marginalized and powerless. So racism has always played a big role in the food system, and [in] food sovereignty, we see a way to combat that and recognize each other as equals. We're given the opportunity to lead ourselves and show that a different food system is possible.</p>

Eric Rivera: What sort of goals do you have moving forward?

Edgar Franks: I think there's been a lot of discussion in the mainstream about unions in general. I think unions have been put in a bad light. I think people feel unions are no longer necessary or a thing of the past. We see that unions are still very much needed because of the corporate control, and just how much power that companies have over everything. Unions are the only way to give common working people a voice not only in the workplace but in the community. [Unions allow] everybody who's at work to participate in how their working conditions can get improved. Papers or no papers, people are allowed to join unions and form their own unions. We see that the labor movement is very strong and there's a lot of interest. We feel that is a way to achieve food sovereignty. If people are given economic stability and are not busting their backs for twelve to fifteen hours a day for less than minimum wage, if people can earn a decent wage, then they'll at least be able to have a little peace of mind and then also start putting into motion plans to transform the food system. Food sovereignty and farmworkers are very much entwined. Its also a question of fighting for not only immigrant rights, but the rights of everybody. The basic human rights that need to be respected. So hopefully in a perfect world where everybody has power over their lives, we wouldn't need borders anymore and people would be able to move freely so they can have a good life where they can be with their kids and see their kids grow up. People could rest and feel at ease.

Edgar Franks is an organizer with Community to Community Development (C2C), from Bellingham, Washington. Community to Community Development is a social justice organization which stated goal is to reclaim our humanity by redefining power in order to end settler colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy in their external and internalized forms. Community to Community has a variety of initiatives meant to empower underrepresented communities through programs oriented around food justice and participatory democracy. Notably, they partnered with Familias Unidas por La Justicia, an independent farmworker union, in organizing around their union drive and fight for a contract with Sakuma Bros. Farms in Washington State. The Sakuma Bros. campaign ended with the ratification of a historic collective bargaining agreement which promises contractual benefits to workers who previously never had them. Franks comes from a background in the farm worker industry, with family originally from Mexico. He detailed how his family, and hundreds of other like them, worked in the fields doing various types of agricultural work. Edgar himself began working in the fields at the age of 10. He got involved in organizing through farmworker marches and held small roles, and from there developed into a full-fledged organizer who eventually joined with C2C through their radio programming. Now Edgar participates in all sorts of campaigns, including the organizing in Sakuma.