by Marion Nestle
Sep 29 2010

Colbert on farm workers

I would have loved to be in the room when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a few days ago.

I’ve been to congressional hearings.  They are a peculiarly American form of Kabuki theater, full of posturing, entirely predictable script-following, and institutionalized rudeness.  Colbert, in character, took perfect advantage of the opportunity.

I thought his testimony was brilliantly funny.  But I can well understand why the members of Congress stuck with Kabuki rituals—stony silence and hiding behind their equivalents of fluttering fans–BlackBerries.

Mr. Colbert gave devastating testimony, well worth 5 minutes to watch.  One of the Times’ bloggers (Sept 24) made a point of what he said at the end when he went out of character:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves.”

In character, his testimony offered some ideas about how to stop undocumented farm labor: “The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables–and if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

He’s right on about that one.  Kim Severson of the New York Times reports:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the east of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Quoting CDC statistics, she reports that “only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day…and no, that does not include French fries.”  We do better with fruit: 33% of Americans eat 2 servings of fruit a day.

All of this is why concern about our food system and where our food comes from also must include concern about who works in the fields, raises the animals, and works in the slaughterhousese.  Immigration is a food issue, big time.

Thanks Colbert–in character and not–for taking this issue to our government.  May it do some good.

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    I applaud Stephen Colbert for taking on this issue. Colbert, as well as Jon Stewart and all of their wonderful writers, have a way of taking serious political issues make it entertaining, yes, but bringing them to the attention to millions of more people who are not aware of the situation, like in this case, of the migrant workers.

    “They take our jobs.” The brilliant campaign discussed that any American can try out to be a migrant worker is a great testament to how little truth this commonly said statement has.

    similar topic:
    Abolish this “FREE” Trade and change it to FAIR TRADE.

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  • Colbert’s appearance before the Congressional committee might have been effective on some level and I applaud him for having the courage to shake things up, but the segments he did on his show completely missed the target. On the first night of his coverage, he had an interview with Rep. Lofgren that was substance free. On the second night he showed the segment about his day as a farm worker in New York. In my opinion, his farm worker segment was a missed opportunity for education because he totally played it for laughs. He didn’t make any attempts to do real work, didn’t make any acknowledgment of the difficulty faced by farm workers, but instead joked around and barely broke a sweat on camera. I would have preferred to see him run through the jokes, work for a whole day alongside the migrants, and then break away from his character and say something about his experience. Or perhaps have a guest on the program who can explain the economics of farm labor, how their low wages and lack of rights creates our cheap food.

  • Renee

    I find Marc’s comment interesting –he’s basically saying that Colbert’s show about this issue should have been real news, rather than a comedy show. I think this illustrates how many of us actually feel we get more realistic “news” from Colbert and Stewart than from any of the major news organizations.

  • Cathy Richards

    I watched Colbert’s senate bit — it was great. Wonderful how humour can help us see through many complexities and excuses, right to the core of an issue.

    Comedians, sitcoms, comic books, etc have done this for years — sometimes well, sometimes bady — and have helped us understand and expose “silent” racism, sexism, prejudices, bad habits, etc in ourselves and in others.

    There are many Colbert fans, and likely a good number of them always thought very negatively of illegal/migrant workers without recognizing how integrated they are in processes that affect our daily lives (farming, food processing, nannies, cleaners). Now Colbert fans have been given some other concepts to mull over.

    Bit by bit comedians help improve our world.

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  • Bobby

    Stephen Colbert and Marion Nestle are both titans in the fight against the evil powers that run our country. Take back your country people, it’s not impossible.

  • Immigration is a food issue- I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I think a lot about that in the restaurant where I work. Fortunately where I work there is an atmosphere of great respect toward the back of the house, but it’s amazing to think that the people preparing our food nationwide are most likely immigrants with fascinating stories and challenges that we can only barely fathom.

  • Jon

    Stephen Colbert is great about this. And yes, you can tell it by the obesity rate.

    My advice? Get some fresh fruits and vegetables, and some frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Try for five, or better yet nine, servings a day. And above all, learn to cook.

    Of course, if you don’t have a car, like most of America’s working poor and lumpen, that’s really not an option unless you live close to a grocery store.

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    we all know media is a impressive source of facts.

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