The Michigan Experience takes a look at Our Kitchen Table, a food and social justice organization located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hear from one of our food coaches as they explain all of the wonderful and impactful benefits of growing a garden right at home! Part of WGVU’s ‘MI (my) American Recipe’ program! https://www.wgvu.org/MI-recipe/ #MiRecipe
Workers who have questions about their rights can call MIRC’s free confidential Farmworker and Immigrant Worker hotline at 800-968-4046.
Reported by MIRC
Michigan egg producer Konos, Inc. (Konos) has paid a major financial settlement to compensate “Jane Doe,” a client of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), ending a sex discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the Western District of Michigan. MIRC’s client was allowed by the court to maintain anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the events at issue in the case. As a condition of settlement, Konos also entered into a consent decree with the EEOC for three years, requiring them to train their workforce and management on sexual harassment, post notices for all employees at their egg processing plants on the existence of the case and the right to a sexual harassment-free workplace, and self-report sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC.
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center represented the female farmworker who intervened to join the lawsuit and added two individual Defendants and state law claims under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
MIRC’s client suffered repeated sexual advances by her male supervisor which escalated to sexual assault. When MIRC’s client went to Konos management to complain, instead of taking any steps to protect her, they sent her home. The male supervisor was eventually criminally prosecuted and convicted of the charges. Konos employed their corporate attorney to represent the male supervisor in criminal court while continuing to represent Konos during the EEOC investigation and the civil litigation. During both the criminal and civil proceedings, Konos’ attorney attempted to use Jane Doe’s immigration status against her and as a defense against the company’s liability but was unsuccessful in deterring Jane Doe from seeking justice.
“Sexual harassment and assault in agriculture is a pervasive and invisible problem with many immigrant survivors too scared to come forward and report due to concerns about immigration status being used against them,” said MIRC supervising attorney Diana Marin. “The weaponizing of immigration status by employers and defense counsel against our immigrant communities must end. It took incredible courage for our client to not only report the abuse, but also to see through a protracted legal battle against a multi-million dollar egg producer. We hope this case sends the message that sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated and there are recourses for immigrant survivors who work in agriculture and experience harassment in the workplace.”
For more information on sexual harassment, visit https://www.eeoc.gov/sexual-harassment.
For more information on retaliation, visit https://www.eeoc.gov/retaliation.
Survivors of sexual assault and abuse can call the State of Michigan’s free and confidential 24/7 hotline at 855-VOICES4 or by texting 866-238-1454.
Workers who have questions about their rights can call MIRC’s free confidential Farmworker and Immigrant Worker hotline at 800-968-4046.
This just in from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC)
Lawsuit calls attention to abuses and unsafe working conditions faced by farmworkers at Michigan mega greenhouse
On June 1, 2022, three farm workers filed a class action lawsuit against their former employers, Mastronardi Produce-USA, Inc. and Maroa Farms, Inc. for violations of federal law relating to harmful pesticide exposure, and a deceptive bonus structure. Plaintiffs Benjamin Lopez, Oscar Carlos Lopez Ramirez, and Ramona Reyes Saucedo, along with their coworkers, were exposed to dangerous pesticides while working in Mastronardi’s two million square foot greenhouses in Coldwater, Michigan.
The Plaintiffs and their co-workers were repeatedly exposed to Virocid, Virkon S, and Sodium Hypochlorite 12.5% – disinfectants regulated as pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – without proper training, proper personal protective equipment, or access to information about the pesticides being used. Plaintiffs and their co-workers experienced ongoing medical issues including daily nose bleeds, headaches, burning eyes, and skin rashes. Mastronardi management repeatedly dismissed their symptoms and requests for protection.
In addition, Mastronardi failed to pay Plaintiffs the promised bonus for meeting production standards by continually increasing the amount of work that had to be completed to receive a bonus, changing how bonuses were calculated, and undercounting their work. Mastronardi also misclassified Ms. Reyes Saucedo as an agricultural worker and failed to pay her overtime wages when she was employed as a janitor cleaning bathrooms, lunchrooms, and migrant housing.
The workers are represented by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), a nonprofit legal resource center for immigrants and farmworkers in Michigan, and Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit farmworker advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
“Pesticide exposure continues to be a serious health and safety risk for our nation’s farmworkers who help bring food to our tables, regardless of whether they perform their work in a field or a greenhouse,” said Anna Hill Galendez, an attorney with MIRC. “Despite the known risks of pesticide exposure, cases involving serious injury and illness to farmworkers as a result of pesticide exposure are all too common, and workers who speak up face the very real risk of retaliation by their employer. Our plaintiffs have demonstrated tremendous courage in coming forward and disclosing to the public the horribly unsafe and unjust working conditions at Mastronardi.”
“Although the practice of wage theft is unfortunately quite common in low-wage industries such as agriculture, it is especially disheartening to witness it in this context, where hundreds of migrant workers traveled long distances to Coldwater based upon Mastronardi’s promise that they would be able to earn a living wage, only to find out that Mastronardi’s guarantees were nothing more than an empty promise,“ said Trent Taylor, staff attorney for Farmworker Justice.
The workers’ complaints fit with a pattern of concerns at Mastronardi facilities in the U.S. According to news reports, Mastronardi facilities in several states have received fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Labor (DOL). Mastronardi has received multiple citations for workplace hazards at a warehouse in Livonia, and the company was previously fined by DOL for wage violations at Maroa Farms. In 2021 a Maine greenhouse owned by Mastronardi was ordered to pay wages and penalties to workers, and in 2020 COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in Mastronardi greenhouses in New York and Michigan.
“Farmworkers, like all workers, deserve safe and healthy workplaces,” said Anna Hill Galendez. “We hope that this lawsuit calls attention to the tremendous abuses that many farmworkers experience and will force Mastronardi to reform its policies and comply with the law.”
“We come to work. They should treat us well. We do our work so that the company can make money. The company should take care of its workers,” said Benjamin Lopez, migrant farmworker and a named Plaintiff.
“Workers also have rights,” said Ramona Reyes Saucedo, one of the named Plaintiffs. “Maroa should treat their employees with dignity and respect and take the proper safety measures to make sure the chemicals and pesticides used don’t harm the employees’ health. My health was affected a lot, my nose bled frequently, and it was difficult for me to breathe without pain or a burning sensation in my chest.”
Workers who have questions about their rights can call MIRC’s free confidential Farmworker and Immigrant Worker hotline at 800-968-4046.
Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) is a statewide legal resource center for Michigan’s immigrant communities that works to build a thriving Michigan where immigrant communities experience equity and belonging. MIRC’s work is rooted in three pillars: direct legal services, systemic advocacy, and community engagement and education. MIRC’s Farmworker and Immigrant Worker Rights practice focuses on representing farmworkers with their employment and civil rights matters and specializes in cases at the intersection of workplace and immigrant rights.
Farmworker Justice (Justicia Campesina) is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice. The organization is based in Washington, D.C. and works with farmworkers and their organizations throughout the nation. farmworkerjustice.org
Click on this Democracy Now! link to watch the video interview and read the transcript.
Hear how two best friends led a drive to organize workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and made history Friday after a majority voted to form the first Amazon union in the U.S.
“I think we proved that it’s possible, no matter what industry you work in, what corporation you work for,” says Christian Smalls, interim president of the new union and former Amazon supervisor. “We just unionized Amazon. If we can do that, we can unionize anywhere.”
Reporter Josefa Velásquez covered the union drive for The City and discusses what the victory means for the broader labor movement.
“Healthy food is a human right”
Emily Scarlett, anchor of 13 On Your Side featured OKT’s executive director, Lisa Oliver-King on air today. Watch the video here.
BY LEAH PENNIMAN 6 MIN READ
At Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm, farmers learn regenerative methods such as heavy mulching and intercropping.
Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains beneath the emptying corn crib. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner—and the thirsty crops struggle to mature.
From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the U.S.
Meanwhile, several Alaskan Native communities struggle to hunt and fish in their traditional ways because rising temperatures are ravaging the wildlife. And sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is located, is among the regions projected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change. “If you’re not affected by climate change today, that itself is a privilege,” climate activist Andrea Manning says.
But the same communities on the frontlines of climate impact are also on the frontlines of climate solutions. A new generation of Black farmers is using heritage farming practices to undo some of the damage brought on by decades of intense tillage by early European settlers. Their practices drove around 50% of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Agriculture continues to have a profound impact on the climate, contributing 23% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Now Black farmers are finding ways to capture that carbon from the air and trap it in the soil. They are employing strategies included in Paul Hawkin’s Drawdown, a guide to the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.
One practice, silvopasture, is an indigenous system that integrates nut and fruit trees, forage, and grasses to feed grazing livestock. Another, regenerative agriculture, a methodology first described by agricultural scientist and inventor Dr. George Washington Carver, involves minimal soil disturbance, the use of cover crops, and crop rotation. Both systems harness plants to capture greenhouse gases. “No other mechanism known to humankind is as effective in addressing global warming as the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis,” Hawkin says.
Here are examples of how farmers are putting these practices to work.
Leonard Diggs, Pie Ranch Farm, Pescadero, California
After working in an auto parts store during high school, Leonard Diggs swore, “I will never have another job working inside.” True to his word, Diggs went on to manage sustainable farms in northern California for over 30 years.
Diggs is developing a 418-acre incubator farm at Pie Ranch, where beginning farmers will establish their own regenerative enterprises. In collaboration with the Amah Mutsun tribal band and nearby farmers, he is creating a landscape-level ecosystem plan that integrates forest, riparian corridor, native grasslands, perennial and annual crops. The management practices that emit carbon, such as some annual crops, will be balanced out with perennial areas that sequester carbon, achieving carbon neutrality overall.
“We need to realize that working landscapes provide not just products but also ecosystem services like carbon sinks, water recharge, and evolutionary potential,” Diggs explains. He envisions a food system where farmers derive 30% to 40% of their income from the value of ecosystem services and do not have to “mine” the soil to make a living. He is working with researchers to establish baseline data for the amount of carbon in the soil, and the composition of bacterial and fungal communities. The goal is for the farm to capture more carbon than it releases over time.
Unlike many incubator farms that emphasize annual crops and allow farmers to stay for just a few years, Diggs is working with a longer horizon. “We need to plant orchards and perennials, get them established over 10 years, and hand new farmers a working landscape. Instead of making them leave as soon as their businesses get established, we will move the incubator to a new area, and the farmers can stay.”
“We need agriculture that does not lose our carbon, and does not deplete our people,” Diggs concluded.
Keisha Cameron, High Hog Farm, Grayson, Georgia
Not everyone in the Black farming community is as excited about fiber as Keisha Cameron. Given the prominent role of the cotton industry in the enslavement of African Americans, many farmers eschew cultivation of textiles. “We are largely absent from the industry on every scale,” she explains. “Yet these agrarian artways and lifeways are part of our heritage.”
At High Hog Farm, Cameron and her family raise heritage breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, horses, chickens, and worms in an integrated silvopasture system and sells fiber and meat. One of her favorite varieties is American Chinchillas, rabbits which consume a wider diversity of forage than goats and fertilize the pasture with their manure.
The family is also working to establish tree guilds, a system where fruit trees are surrounded by a variety of fiber crops such as indigo, cotton, and flax. Their goal is a “closed loop” where all the fertility the farm needs is created in place. They pack a lot of enterprises into a small space. “We have 5 acres,” she says playfully. “Just enough to be dangerous.”
In his book, the Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier writes that silvopasture traps 42 tons of carbon per acre every year. This is because pasture stores carbon in the above and below ground biomass of grasses, shrubs, and trees. Also, animals that are raised on pasture have healthier digestive systems than those raised in confinement, and emit lower amounts of methane.
In addition to healing the climate, silvopasture is a joyful practice. “I get to play with sheep and bunnies. What could be better?” Cameron poses.
Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm, North Charleston, South Carolina
When Germaine Jenkins first moved to Charleston, she relied on SNAP and food pantries to feed her children. “I did not like that we couldn’t choose what we wanted to eat, and there were few healthy options. I was sick of standing in line and decided to grow my own stuff.”
Jenkins learned how to cultivate her own food through a master gardening course, a certificate program at Growing Power, and online videos. She promptly started growing food in her yard and teaching her food-insecure clients to do the same through her work at the Lowcountry Food Bank. In 2014, Jenkins won an innovation competition and earned seed money to create a community farm.
Today, Fresh Future Farm grows on 0.8 acres in the Chicora neighborhood and runs a full-service grocery store right on site. “We are living under food apartheid,” explains Jenkins. “So all of the food is distributed right here in the neighborhood on a sliding scale pay system.”
Jenkins relies on what she calls “ancestral muscle memory” to guide her regenerative farming practices. Fresh Future Farm integrates perennial crops such as banana, oregano, satsuma, and loquat together with annuals like collards and peanuts. The farm produces copious amounts of compost on site using waste products like crab shell, and they apply cardboard and wood chips in a thick layer of mulch. “We repurpose everything — old Christmas trees as trellises and branches as breathable cloche for frost-sensitive crops.” Jenkins explains. They even have grapes growing up the fence of the chicken yard so that the “chickens fertilize their own shade.”
Jenkins’ farming methods have been so successful at increasing the organic matter in the soil that they no longer need irrigation. They are also less vulnerable to flooding. “Two winters ago, we had 4 feet of snow. Our soil absorbed all of it,” Jenkins says.
Toensmeier writes that for every 1% increase in soil organic matter, we sequester 8.5 tons per acre of atmospheric carbon. If all of us were to farm like Jenkins, Diggs, and Cameron, we could put 322 billion tons of carbon back in the soil where it belongs. That’s half of the carbon we need to capture to stabilize the climate.
As Larisa Jacobson, co-director of Soul Fire Farm explains, “Our duty as earthkeepers is to call the exiled carbon back into the land and to bring the soil life home.”
|LEAH PENNIMAN is a farmer, educator, soil steward, and food justice activist. She is the co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, and the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.|
Lisa Oliver-King, Director of Our Kitchen Table (OKT), shares her food experiences, more about OKT’s work and her vision for a more just, equitable food system in Kent County
Earlier this year, the Kent County Food Policy Council launched to strengthen and grow the food system in Kent County. As we build momentum, discuss, and prioritize issues, we are gathering information and engaging with our community through a project called Everybody Eats: Highlighting Food Experiences in Kent County. Through this project, we are inviting our community to share their experiences with our food system and highlight the good food work that is already happening here.
Below is an interview with Lisa Oliver-King, Director of Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a grass-roots, nonprofit organization serving greater Grand Rapids. OKT promotes social justice and empowers our neighbors to improve their health and environment through information, community organizing and advocacy. Lisa was a formation team member of the Kent County Food Policy Council. Thank you, Lisa, for your good food work and sharing your thoughts with us!
Tell me about your relationship with food.
Lisa: My relationship with food has been built over time. As a child, my mother would prepare different meals for my siblings and I so that we could eat what we really wanted to eat, sometimes she would make each of us a different meal. During the holidays, my family would be up until 3 or 4 in the morning making everything from scratch. My family always really bonded over food. We also had hard times. At one point, the gas in our house was shut off for a week so we had ham in many different forms. Although we got tired of ham, we still ate.
My family was always involved in every process of food: picking some of our own produce, going to get meat from a butcher, helping with preparation, cooking, and cleaning up before and after meals. These experiences gave me an appreciation for food.
A big part of my relationship with food is connection. We use food in my family to release tension in difficult conversations. If there is something that my husband or my kids and I need to discuss, we will come to the kitchen table and set out blueberries or other snacks and use that as a buffer or comfort in our conversations.
Food is so much more than something that we eat…we use it on our skin, we can drink it: it has a greater purpose than solely being consumed. And as I get older, I appreciate the earth more, I appreciate farmers more, I appreciate the importance of food subsidies more.
In what way does your organization engage in the local food system?
Lisa: Our Kitchen Table works with people who do not have a good relationship with food. We have to think about why that is and if there is anything that we can do to change that. We look at the whole entity: how food smells, the preparation, harvesting, growing, and cooking food. We try to walk people through every aspect of their relationship with food.
We work to figure out what experience we can create. One of the ways that we do that is by providing people with a food garden coach and working with them to get past the initial obstacles in their relationship with food — whatever they may be. We help people work with the resources that they have. We ask: what do you have in your household? Is there an obstacle with electricity or gas? If there is, that’s okay because there are so many other options. I have worked with people who use their coffee makers to boil chicken. People who grill due to lack of access to electricity or gas. We work with the resources that they have and come up with creative solutions to educate people on how they can prepare food regardless of limitations. There is no one way, there is no right way.
I have always thought about food as it relates to power. I have the power of selecting what I want to eat, which items I want to purchase, and how I prepare my food. I get to choose what goes into my body. Ultimately, we teach others about food power.
If you were to design a food system rooted in equity, justice and sovereignty, where would you focus your attention and why?
Lisa: I would focus my attention on ensuring that food is available in public spaces and that it is available to all. And looking at the issue of equity when it comes to availability. We need to come together and make sure that food is available for all; but also, some spaces may need more support. In those public spaces, we want things to be set up in a puzzle perspective: with charitable organizations, retail, areas where you can just go, and pick produce for free.
We have to ask: how do we create a diversification in the food space that meets the needs of the community at large? And with the promise of no stigma and no judgment. That when you access food, you make sure that others are accessing it without barriers as well. That would be my dream.
Interview by: Nicole Kukla
Lisa Oliver-King is the Executive Director with Our Kitchen Table (OKT), a nonprofit organization that focuses on food and environmental justice, which go hand-in-hand with sustainability. Lisa said, “As minerals, soil, seeds, foods, water, and even air became to be viewed as resources to be traded for profit by those in power, those without power increasingly are harmed by the results—and often exploited for labor. In a world where clean air, healthy soil, healthy food, and clean water are seen as human rights, sustainability will follow”.
Our Kitchen Table makes its impact by engaging in dialogue and planting seeds of activism that go beyond planting a garden or growing a tomato. She mentioned that OKT’s work is like an analogy that the late Wangari Matthai spoke to—that we are one snail with a drop of water on our back making our way to help extinguish the fire. Lisa further notes that “True sustainability looks like people of the world enjoying food sovereignty, clean water, and peace as the result of living in a global culture that values the earth, health, and economic equality”.
Lisa is proud to celebrate OKT’s Food Policy for Food Justice series and their ability to teach neighbors to grow their own food, share the message of food justice, and maintain a walkable neighborhood farmer’s market for ten years, which increases the access to healthy, local produce. She is also proud that she and the Our Kitchen Table team are helping to change the focus from food charity to addressing root causes of hunger and food insecurity and that by working alongside constituents, they have become not only teachers but colleagues and students.
Systemic and institutional racism and funding structures have been barriers and challenges while working in the sustainability and environmental justice field, especially as a POC-led organization. Lisa mentioned that gaining trust has been challenging at times, but that building relationships is key to working collectively. Although there are many barriers to this work, Lisa believes that now is the time to build awareness that there has never been food justice in the United States, and to acknowledge that healthy food and clean water are basic human rights. She looks forward to the end of the disempowerment of People of Color and invites any sustainability professionals to share a meal with the OKT team to have an authentic conversation about how food justice intersects with racism, women’s rights, animal rights, workers’ rights, clean air and water, academic equity, and public health.
The World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian organization dealing with hunger and food security, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize today, with its executive director David Beasley warning that the combination of conflict, climate crisis and COVID-19 could push 270 million people to the brink of starvation. In his acceptance speech, Beasley said, “Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse, 270 million people are marching toward starvation. Failure to address their needs will cause a hunger pandemic which will dwarf the impact of COVID.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before our live broadcast today, the World Food Programme received the Nobel Peace Prize in an online ceremony, due to COVID-19 restrictions, for what the Nobel Committee described as “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict,” unquote.
The World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization dealing with hunger and food security. It’s now warning the combination of conflict, climate crisis and COVID-19 could push 270 million people to the brink of starvation.
The executive director, the former South Carolina Governor David Beasley, accepted this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award on behalf of the organization from its headquarters in Rome.
DAVID BEASLEY: On behalf of the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, our board, our sister agencies, our incredible partners and donors, and on behalf of 19,000 peacemakers at the World Food Programme, including those who came before us and especially those who died in the line of duty and their families who carry on, and on behalf of the 100 million people we serve, to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, thank you for this great honor.
Also, thank you for acknowledging our work of using food to combat hunger, to mitigate against destabilization of nations, to prevent mass migration, to end conflict and to create stability and peace. We believe food is the pathway to peace.
I wish today that I could speak of how, working together, we could end hunger for all the 690 million people who go to bed hungry every night, but today we have a crisis at hand. This Nobel Peace Prize is more than a thank you; it is a call to action. Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse, 270 million people are marching toward starvation. Failure to address their needs will cause a hunger pandemic which will dwarf the impact of COVID. And if that’s not bad enough, out of that 270 million, 30 million depend on us 100% for their survival. How will humanity respond?
What tears me up inside is this. This coming year, millions and millions and millions of my equals, my neighbors, your neighbors, are marching to the brink of starvation. We stand at what may be the most ironic moment in modern history. On the one hand, after a century of massive strides in eliminating extreme poverty, today those 200 million of our neighbors are on the brink of starvation. That’s more than the entire population of Western Europe. On the other hand, there is $400 trillion of wealth in our world today. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic, in just 90 days, an additional [$2.7] trillion of wealth was created. And we only need $5 billion to save 30 million lives from famine. What am I missing here?
A lot of my friends and leaders around the world have said to me, “You’ve got the greatest job in the world, saving the lives of millions of people.” Well, here’s what I tell them: I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved; I go to bed weeping over the children we could not save. And when we don’t have enough money nor the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die. How would you like that job? Please, don’t ask us to choose who lives and who dies.
In the spirit of Alfred Nobel, as inscribed on this medal, “peace and brotherhood,” let’s feed them all. Food is the pathway to peace.
AMY GOODMAN: “Food is the pathway to peace.” That’s World Food Programme executive director David Beasley accepting this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award on behalf of the organization from its headquarters in Rome, on today, International Human Rights Day.
When we come back, we look at the hunger crisis with Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists. We’ll also ask him about President-elect Biden’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could play a key role in feeding millions of Americans facing food insecurity during the pandemic. And then we’ll look at the crisis in Ethiopia. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday,” performed by the University of California Riverside Chamber Singers, arranged for chorus by Gene Glickman. Lifelong activist and music professor, Gene passed away last weekend at the age of 86.The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.
|As awareness of racism’s role in infant mortality grows,|
Michigan takes action
|Reposted from SecondWave Media|
|This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.|
For Black infants, racism’s impacts begin at birth – and may be deadly.
In 2018 in Michigan, more than three times as many Black babies died before their first birthday as white babies. Black mothers fare even worse, with maternal mortality rates that are 4.5 times higher than non-Hispanic white women. An underlying factor in Black infant mortality is low birth weight (LBW). When LBW babies survive, they face a host of medical problems that often have lifelong consequences.
“When we take a long view, maternal and infant mortality across the U.S. has been declining but it is still an issue when the U.S. is compared to other wealthy nations. We are not doing as well,” says Amber Bellazaire, policy analyst with the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) and author of its report, “Thriving babies start with strong moms: Right Start 2020.” “… When we drill down further, we see those disparities in racial outcomes.”
“Racism is oftentimes an underlying value of the disparities seen,” adds Dawn Shanafelt, director of Maternal and Infant Health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). “We have systems of care that have been built in this society, which is plagued with structural, systemic racism. The system for medical care continues to perpetuate these. It’s been evident in the experiences that have been published by families receiving maternal care. The bias is very clear.”
However, the link between racism and health impacts for Black babies is becoming increasingly better understood and acknowledged – and practitioners across Michigan are coming together to address it.
The “weathering” effect of racism
As a Black mother and grandmother, Grand Rapids resident Yvonne Woodard has experienced firsthand the way racial disparities have affected her children and grandchildren’s health. Her first baby weighed five pounds, seven ounces. Her fifth and last weighed four pounds, eight ounces.
“They all came to term. My first was overdue,” she says. “They just kept getting smaller.”
Yvonne Woodard holds a family photo.Woodard’s first grandson weighed one pound, eight ounces. Now nine years old, he has just learned how to say “mama.” Woodard’s granddaughters weighed three and four pounds.
“It’s not a good feeling,” she says. “A doctor had told me, ‘It’s because you are African-American and it’s in your family.’ I thought, ‘I am going to be sick because of my race and background?’ It doesn’t make sense that it’s hereditary.”
Woodard’s experience reflects the results of “weathering.” As retold in Bellazaire’s report, University of Michigan professor and researcher Arline Geronimus found that exposure to chronic stress — like the stresses of facing racial discrimination day after day – leads to early health deterioration.
“Continual attempts to cope with cumulative stress — not just one negative experience but a combination over the life course — leads to a high allostatic load or ‘wear and tear’ on the body,” Bellazaire wrote in the MLPP report. “This wear and tear leads to racial health disparities across a range of medical conditions, including disadvantages in pregnancy and childbirth.”
As a woman who has deeply researched her own medical conditions, Woodard agrees. “Stress contributes a lot,” she says. “Your nervous system actually has a memory.”
Geronimus’ research found that in the U.S., non-Hispanic Black women have the highest incidence of weathering. While Black women moving to the U.S. more recently have outcomes similar to white women, those who have lived here all of their lives fare the worst, no matter how much money they have or how advanced their education.
“There are many factors that interact and inform pregnancy-related outcomes. Racial disparity and bias is one,” Bellazaire says. “This is borne out in evidence, not just in what people feel, anecdotes, or opinions. Consistent research suggests that when we hold things the same, education, socioeconomic status, and healthy behaviors, we continue to see these disparities by race.”
When health care systems operate with racial biases, whether they are recognized or not, that stress can be intensified. Practitioners may assume that Black women have Medicaid insurance coverage, are single mothers, lack education, or are using illegal drugs. According to a 2019 American Progress report, the intersectionality of racism and sexism often results in women of color experiencing bias and discrimination in health care settings, leaving them to feel invisible or unheard when they ask their medical providers for help or try to communicate their symptoms.
“When I had the last baby, I moved from New York to Virginia. I told the new doctor what’s going to happen … and of course he didn’t believe me,” Woodard says. “I was female and Black. He didn’t believe that I know my own body.”
“If you do not have access to respectful and responsive care, your health is going to be affected,” Bellazaire adds. “It’s as simple as if you feel unsupported or unheard, you may be less likely to receive care. We know that not receiving consistent prenatal care certainly affects Michigan’s outcomes. We want to make sure we are encouraging respectful, responsive care for all Michigan women if we care to improve outcomes.”
Respect and response
Although the statistics on racial disparities in infant health are disheartening, awareness of the issue is growing and Michigan is taking steps to address it. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed expansion of Michigan’s Healthy Moms Healthy Babies program shines a spotlight on racial maternal-infant health disparities and establishes a plan to decrease them. The plan states, “As a part of comprehensive health care for women we will ask a woman what she wants, ensure she can get it in one visit, and provide coverage for it.”
Dawn Shanafelt.In developing the plan, MDHHS staff met with residents across the state in town hall-style meetings to learn about their experiences, needs, and suggestions.
“I think we are transforming the way we are doing things,” Shanafelt says. “We made it clear that we don’t just want the state to come by and do its thing. We want open communication. We had our team of epidemiologists be a part of meetings so we could share data with communities and really show that we are invested in a partnership.”
First and foremost, Healthy Moms Healthy Babies expands health care coverage for low-income new moms to a full year after giving birth. The plan has established nine Regional Perinatal Quality Collaboratives (RPQCs) comprised of health care professionals, community partners, families, faith-based organizations, Great Start Collaboratives, home visiting agencies, and others who will focus on improving birth outcomes through quality improvement projects tailored to the strengths and challenges of each region.
Moving the first postpartum health care visit to within three weeks of birth and adding a comprehensive visit within 12 weeks will better support new mothers with postpartum depression and anxiety, breastfeeding challenges, or substance use disorders. Training in implicit bias will teach health care providers to better listen to women of color. Proven effective, home visiting programs will support women and babies in achieving better health while sharing information that will help them and their partners recognize developmental milestones, gain parenting skills, and access resources for housing, food security, or family planning.
“Really, what Healthy Moms Healthy Babies does is improve systems so we have sustainable change, [with the goal of] zero preventable deaths and zero disparities,” Shanafelt says. “Whether you live in Detroit or Traverse City, we want you to have the best possible chance of having a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby wherever you deliver.”
While racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality remain a problem, Michigan is actively charting paths towards health equity — with an emphasis on new moms and their babies. But as Woodard emphasizes, the long-term answer will go beyond policy change.
Yvonne Woodard.“Peoples’ hearts have to change,” she says. “… We Black women are no different [from white women]. The parts of our body are in the same place. It’s about domination. One day, people will realize this. One day, it’s going to be so much better.”
Yvonne Woodard photos by Kristina Bird. All other photos courtesy of the subjects.