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Until We Eat Equally Well: An Interview with Teresa Hendricks from Migrant Legal Aid

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

The Kent County Food Policy Council interviews Teresa Hendricks from Migrant Legal Aid on harvesting food and migrant farmworkers

The Kent County Food Policy Council interviews Teresa Hendricks from Migrant Legal Aid on harvesting food and migrant farmworkers

As part of the Everybody Eats project, the Kent County Food Policy Council is highlighting food experiences in Kent County, inviting community members to share their experiences. In this series, we aim to highlight the good food work that is already happening here. 

Read an interview below with Teresa Hendricks, the Director of Migrant Legal Aid (MLA) and non-profit representative on the Kent County Food Policy Council. Migrant Legal Aid is a nonprofit organization that has been advocating for migrant workers’ rights since 1973. MLA stands up for the rights of workers to have proper housing, work under safe conditions, and earn a fair wage.

Tell me about your relationship with food.

Teresa: My relationship with food is neither good nor bad: I eat when I’m hungry. I am not motivated to cook and most of the things I cook, I burn. Food interrupts my fun, I realize that I have to stop and eat. My professional relationship with food: I have dedicated my career to defending the rights of migrant farm workers who pick our food in Michigan. There are 94,000 farm workers and family members in Michigan -- there’s a lot of work to do. Our mission is to reduce exploitation in the food supply chain. 

In what way does your organization engage in the local food system?

Teresa: Our local food system in Kent County produces about $231 million dollars in revenue. Kent County uses about 6,000 farm workers. I am constantly monitoring conditions and recovering wages that were stolen from the workers. Ultimately, we sue the producers of food when they don’t follow the law. 

Migrant Legal Aid visits the farms where migrant workers work and builds relationships with the farmers. Essentially, we are a mobile law office. We go to the workers’ living unit to observe the living conditions and speak with them about their concerns. We help them based on what they're facing: unsafe living conditions, calculating wages, child labor, limited English proficiency, and how to handle interactions with law enforcement. Farm workers don't have the luxury of time or money to be able to afford an attorney, nor do they have a good understanding of our legal system, so we go out to them. We have a robust education and outreach program. Outreach means we go to them and education means that we empower them to know their rights and responsibilities while they are in Michigan.  

We’ve been doing this for 48 years -- we are the oldest agency in Grand Rapids for this type of work. We serve migrant workers: both documented and undocumented. Many of the people we work with might not even know that they have rights, or they might be afraid to assert them because of their immigration status. So our outreach and education is critical for their protection.

We have a program called the Fair Food Project of Migrant Legal Aid where retailers can become members and support our outreach efforts so that they know what is happening with the producers they purchase from. If I see a systemic problem, I send out a courtesy alert to the retailers and they can take action against the grower and come up with a remedy (like not buying from the grower anymore). Consumers also want courtesy alerts so they understand where their food is coming from. This program allows Fair Food Project partners to voluntarily solve disputes as they are happening rather than filing a lawsuit. 

If you were to design a food system rooted in equity, justice and sovereignty, where would you focus your attention and why?

Teresa: I would ensure that the law fully protects migrant workers. Farm workers need a living wage, they need to be paid overtime, they need to be assured that they will get workers compensation, and they need health insurance. That way farm workers are able to afford the food that they actually pick. We will all be equal when we all eat equally well. In order for farm workers to eat as well as mainstream communities, we need to pay them more and give them benefits. We also need to pay more for fresh fruits and vegetables because it costs more when you pay workers fairly.  

Interview by: Nicole Kukla

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