CIRS Blog about Rural California
Consumers in the United States are especially fortunate to have access to fresh food at all times of the year. In our supermarket produce aisles it’s hard to tell what season it is when fresh fruits and vegetables are available all the time. We can be thankful for this abundance and especially in California where we have a year-round growing season. But hidden in the abundance of produce on the shelves is a darker story of food chain workers who struggle to eat the foods they grow and package.
Food Equity along the Chain
Equity is an essential characteristic of a healthy food system. Access to healthy, fresh, sustainably grown food is a basic human right. Ironically, this right is often denied to workers who are directly engaged (frontline workers) along the food chain.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance recently updated their report “The Hands that Feed Us” from 2012 with the new report, “No Piece of the Pie.” The report is full of sobering data. The food industry, employing 21.5 million people is the single largest employment sector in the US. And, despite steady growth of the sector, wages for workers have only risen twenty cents an hour in the last four years. As a result, food workers are increasingly turning to food assistance programs, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Access Program also known as Food Stamps) to help feed themselves and their families. Median wages for front line food workers are $16,000 while industry CEOs have a salary of $120,000.
- Despite employment growth, the food chain pays the lowest hourly median wage to frontline workers compared to workers in all other industries.
- The annual median wage for food chain workers is $16,000 and the hourly median wage is $10, well below the median wages across all industries of $36,468 and $17.53.
- Food chain workers rely on public assistance and are more food insecure than other workers. Thirteen percent of all food workers, nearly 2.8 million workers, relied on SNAP to feed their household in 2016.
- This was 2.2 times the rate of all other industries, a much higher rate than in 2010 when food workers had to use food stamps at 1.8 times the rate of all other industries.
- Food insecurity in households supported by a food chain worker rose to 4.6 million during the Great Recession ("No Piece of the Pie," Executive Summary, Pages 1-2)
Food and Farm Workers
Our food system disproportionately burdens the poor and marginalized with its costs and failings. Structural inequity is echoed through all aspects of the food chain, from poor labor conditions and wages for workers involved in the production and distribution of food to lack of access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods, both rural and urban.
Labor conditions and wages for farm workers are generally below those of average Americans. Wages for field workers in California in real dollars have consistently decreased since 1974 (see graph below). In addition, days outside in the elements doing rigorous physical tasks can result in long range damage to worker health. Field workers put in long days often arising before sunrise to prepare for, and travel to, work.
Low wages are primarily responsible for substandard living conditions among farmworkers. In addition, many of those who grow and harvest the food for our feasts, go hungry.
California Institute for Rural Studies has produced three studies on food insecurity among farmworkers in different regions of the state. In 2007, before the financial recession, a study in Fresno revealed that 45 percent of the workers interviewed experienced some form of food insecurity.
After the recession in 2009, a study was completed among farmworkers in Salinas. Sixty-six percent of respondents in this study stated that they were food insecure and 39 percent had used food stamps at some point in the previous year. In 2015, we undertook a similar study in Yolo County. In 2015, with an economy in recovery, 47 percent of farmworkers interviewed in Yolo County were food insecure and 15 percent stated that they or someone in their household had eaten less or stopped eating because there was not enough money for food.
In a country that produces enough food to feed its populace it is inconceivable that anyone goes hungry, let alone those who are directly responsible for the production of that bounty.
On the food distribution side, equity concerns arise because many people lack sufficient access to healthy food options. Poverty, geographical isolation, lack of accessible transport, lack of grocery stores and exploitive marketing limit access for people living in disadvantaged
These communities are often populated by those who work somewhere along the food chain.
Becoming Good Food Citizens
The globalized food system that allows us to buy tomatoes in December in our grocery stores also disconnects us from the reality of production.
Farms and distribution chains can deliver varied and plentiful food supplies but we don’t know where our food comes from, how or by whom it’s grown. And this discourages good food citizenship. We are removed from the reality of agriculture. The importance of being or becoming good food citizens cannot be understated when we interact with food at least three times a day and are completely dependent on it for our health and
well-being. Food is important not just for its nutritional content but also for its
cultural and economic values among other things.
“This context justifies, as well as conditions, the possibilities and difficulties of the emergence of a food citizenship. The framework establishes
the expressive dimensions and the spheres of praxis of food citizenship and of the construction of the policies that facilitate the emergence and consolidation of this new space in which to exercise citizenship. …This concept is based on the acknowledgement of rights -- to food and toinformation about food -- and of obligations, in private and public behavior, in political participation, in justice, and in cosmopolitanism." (Constructing Food Citizenship: Theoretical Premises and Social Practices. Cristóbal Gómez-Benito, Carmen Lozano. Italian Sociological Review, vol. 4 no. 2, 2014)
How do we become better food citizens and develop the kind of framework within our system that allows us to support the rights to food and information about food? What steps can we take to participate politically to bring about more equity within our food system? Below are suggested consumer actions.
(From No Piece of the Pie")
1. Workplace justice campaigns and union drives need the support of consumers to help strengthen food workers’ efforts to win better pay and working conditions. Consumers can get involved in food worker campaigns in a variety of ways, including attending a rally, signing a petition, speaking to an employer, or using social media.
2. Consumers can also support food workers by purchasing products from companies that are fair trade, union-made, or have high labor standards. Look for certification labels that tell you if a food product was made with good labor standards. The Domestic Fair Trade Association provides an evaluation of the major fair trade labels. Also check out the Fair World Project’s evaluation of fair trade programs’ impacts on farmworkers.
3. The public can call on policymakers to support pro-worker legislation. This can range from advocating for labor laws and anti-wage theft bills to procurement policies like the Good Food Purchasing Program (goodfoodcities.org), as well as pro-worker certification programs like the Fair Food Program and the Agricultural Justice Project. Policymakers are ultimately responsible to the voting public, and lobbying representatives can often influence their policy decisions.
4. People can educate one another and discuss food worker issues in their daily lives, especially in conversations around local, organic, and sustainable food. Many local food groups and farmers’ markets do not talk about food workers simply because they are unaware of the issues that workers face.
Happy Thanksgiving from CIRS! Wishing you all an equitable celebration.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments