Forgot to write away for an absentee ballot this November? Don't worry about it; the most interesting vote of the year has yet to take place. This Friday, our democratic friends at Harvard Dining Services (HDS) send us to the ballot box on a question close to home: Do we want grapes in the dining halls?
Heeding feedback requests for grapes, HDS was about to bring the tasty little fruits back for brunch Nov. 9. But, when many students cried foul, the dining authorities decided to let us decide. With a flourish of creativity and maybe just a little too much free time on their hands, HDS officials dubbed the vote "The Great Grape Referendum" and designed enormous purple signs to rev up the student body. Students quickly and admirably responded to the challenge, splintering into pro-grape and anti-grape factions.
Most notably, seven undergrads formed The Grape Coalition to encourage the reinstatement of grapes at Harvard. The Coalition released an impassioned mission statement, turning to capital letters to make their points hit home (e.g. "GRAPES ARE TASTY"). A typically fervent debate took over the U.C. e-mail list, and unknown pranksters circulated a bogus poster threatening to toss HDS dietitian Shirley Hung into a crossfire with political pundit and baseball analyst George Will.
With the grape situation thus veering toward the surreal, and as the debate is stained by allegations of deceit, you may be tempted to give in to a craving for the juicy, sweet, smooth-skinned fruit we know and love and end our involvement in the boycott here and now. But at least take a close look at the facts before casting your vote.
According to the UFW, grape-growing continues to cause health risks for both farmworkers and consumers. Thirty percent of farmworkers are under age 16, the UFW says; 27,000 farmworkers yearly suffer acute illnesses from pesticides, despite laws aiming to curtail their use; and farmworkers face generally unhospitable working conditions, often lacking bathrooms and drinking water. Meanwhile, the UFW claims, consumers are also at risk. According to a 1992 study by the General Accounting Office, cited by the UFW, grapes are sprayed with 75 different kinds of pesticides--one-third of which are known to be carcinogenic--and between 20 and 50 percent of the grapes on supermarket shelves retained pesticide residues.
In response, The Grape Coalition alleges that conditions are much improved since the 1960s, and that information supplied by the UFW cannot be trusted. The UFW denies the truth to advance its political aims, they say, pointing out that California farmworkers themselves have abandoned the union, with fewer than I percent currently UFW members. And California, the Coalition notes, is the only state in the nation to require that pesticide-related illnesses be reported to state authorities.
Voters hungry for the facts should take The Grape Coalition's pleas with a grain of salt. Ninety percent of the nation's grapes come from California, and, according to the UFW, more pesticides are used on grapes than on all other fruits and vegetables combined. So wouldn't you expect California to be the state to most want to know about pesticide-related illnesses? Moreover, just because California knows about these cancers doesn't mean it's working to prevent them. Even if conditions have improved in the fields, does that mean they have improved enough?
The fact that the UFW has largely abandoned the grape boycott in favor of other crusades--and the fact that many farmworkers have decided they are better off without membership in it--may well be another red herring. What matters here is not labor politics, but the health and safety of the workers and of consumers. If these remain at risk, the boycott remains justified.
The Coalition makes other spurious arguments. Harvard's not buying grapes actually hurts the workers, they say, since there is then lesser demand and thus lower wages for grape pickers. But can the companies that denied their workers clean water and bathrooms just years ago now be assumed to pass on profits to these same workers?
Finally, the Coalition argues that this isn't a question of whether or not to boycott; this, they claim, is about individual freedom! Let students decide in the dining halls, they urge, so that those of us who want to protest worker conditions can munch on raisins instead. Besides threatening to ruin many a friendly lunchtime conversation ("Wait--are those grapes I see on your plate?"), this approach really only serves one party: those who want to eat grapes. Several students acting individually will always be incomparably less powerful than Harvard College acting as a whole.
Of course, none of us needs grapes at all. Grapes are nearly pure sugar, with far less vitamin C than an orange, and lacking the potassium of a banana or the dietary fiber of an apple. Don't get me wrong, grapes taste great. But there are plenty of other things that taste great that we don't have in the dining halls. (Chocolate bars come to mind.) And if you're such a big fan that you can't wait to make it home for the holidays where (presumably) a juicy bowl of your favorite fruit awaits your arrival, I'm sure there are several varieties of grapes on sale this week at Sage's or Star Market. In the meantime, let those of us who would rather try to make a difference than not do just that.
Geoffrey C. Upton's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.