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Students Join the Fight for ‘Milk with Dignity’ -- Advocating for Human Rights in the Food System

on December 10, 2015

I met an incredible four year old on a small Vermont dairy farm this summer. She was babbling to herself; smiling without knowing it.  When her parents introduced her to me, she held her doll to her chest and looked down at her toes for a moment. In a moment, she was out the kitchen door, smiling her way across a lush green field behind the barn.

Stepping outside, we surveyed the three story barn, the large manure lagoon, the concrete milking room. And seeing the young girl on the other side of the pond, someone commented offhandedly, “I don’t think she has ever left the confines of this property.”

In four years.

I was shocked. But maybe I shouldn’t have been.

Her family are dairy workers. They work 7 days a week, often 12-14 hour shifts. They live in a pair of rooms up a few steps from the milking barn, where dozens of cows stand hooked to milking machines and methane gas fills the air. The Border Patrol polices these back roads; and stories of latino/a farmworkers being racially profiled, stopped and taken into indefinite detention or deportation are all too common.  Until Vermont farmworkers organized to change state law,  migrant farmworkers were legally barred from owning and operating vehicles. Living in the shadows, even a quick trip to the grocery store could lead to arrest or worse. The farm had become this small girl’s whole world, and perhaps unbeknownst to her, something of a prison.

The dairy industry in Vermont is clearly not well. In the last five years alone, 15% of the state’s dairy farms went out of business; and those that remain survive at the whim of increasingly volatile international milk prices.  With this growing squeeze on farms and growth in farm size, a recent study found that 40% of Vermont's dairy workers are paid less than the state minimum wage; 40% work 7 days a week without 24 consecutive hours off in a week or 8 consecutive hours off between shifts. And in Vermont’s notorious ice cold winters, 15% of farmworkers go without sufficient heat. [You can learn more here]

The confusing reality is that for an outsider, this area of Vermont is beautiful. There are rolling hills, bucolic farmsteads, those iconic red barns… But these vistas--so reminiscent of grocery-store packaging and dairy industry marketing--obscure the very real struggle that workers and farmers face. And even after witnessing these human rights violations first hand, some part of me still wants to hold on to the marketeers’ myth of this agricultural dreamland. To pretend, to ignore, to turn away.

It begs an important question for all of consumers: knowing the reality, will we work to challenge the status quo or will we cling to the myth?

This is not an idle question for the farmworkers themselves. Despite their relative isolation, Vermont  farmworkers are getting organized. Starting just a few years ago, workers began gathering in regional “asambleas” or assemblies. Socializing, comparing notes on work and engaging in peer-to-peer political education, these worker-leaders have come together to define what ‘work with dignity’ truly means.  After meetings upon meetings--in parks, local colleges and community centers--they’ve developed a new standard to fix the human rights abuses in the dairy industry as a whole.

Rather than demonize farm owners, who themselves are in a tough place, the farmworkers have followed the money up the supply chain to where the real power lies. They are bringing their reality directly to companies like Ben & Jerry’s and other big dairy buyers, who have the resources and responsibility to pay a bit more for their milk to ensure that all their supplying farms can stay afloat AND respect fundamental human rights. It’s called ‘Milk with Dignity.’

The program is built as a 5-part system, including:
    1.    Farmworker-Authored Code of Conduct: farmworkers’ definition of the human right to work with dignity;
    2.    Farmworker Education: Guarantees workers’ right to education about their rights under the Code of Conduct
    3.    Third Party Monitoring Body: Monitors, enforces and audits farmer compliance with Code of Conduct; receives worker complaints and     addresses grievances; creates improvement plans; enforces consequences
    4.    Economic Relief: Participating corporations pay an extra premium directly to both farmworkers AND farmers   
    5.    Legally-Binding Agreements: Participating Corporations sign a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law   



Following workers’ lead, student activists have joined in with this revolutionary campaign that will transform the dairy industry. Real Food Challenge leaders in Vermont and across the country are getting energized and joining the fight. When farmworkers called for a national day of action, student leaders from Burlington to San Francisco joined in -- leading chants and delivering letters to Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops. We’re also ready to advocate on our campuses -- making sure that companies which unwittingly profit from farmworker poverty & abuse, and that keep farmers in the red with milk prices that don’t even cover the cost of production, are made aware and held to account.

Ultimately, by joining this ‘Milk with Dignity’ campaign we’re breaking down isolation. Students and dairy workers are building relationships, bonds of solidarity, sharing rides, learning english together, and developing political strategy. Simple as it sounds, these acts break down one of the hardest-to-uproot causes of the current crisis -- our ability as a society to let racism and xenophobia make us believe that some of us are less deserving of respect, less prone to pain, to depression; that some of our children deserve isolation and deprivation.

When we stand together and raise our voices for justice we gain much more than higher wages or safer housing -- by recognizing the humanity in others, we regain a bit of our own.