The People Behind Your Food Are More Vulnerable Than Ever | Civil Eats

The People Behind Your Food Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

New data suggests workers across the food system are still struggling to feed themselves and their families. And it won’t get better under Trump.

food workers

Shanita has worked as a server in restaurants for years. The Brooklyn resident, who preferred not to use her last name, says she’s often had to work two, three, and even four jobs just to pay the bills.

When asked whether she’s ever received benefits or sick days, she burst out laughing. “I got fired from a job because I was sick,” she counters.

Shanita is one of 20 workers whose experiences are documented in a new report out today called “No Piece of the Pie: U.S. Food Workers in 2016.”

The report comes from Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a group that has been working for years to shine a light on the 21.5 million people who are employed across the five sectors of the food chain—from production to processing, distribution, retail, and service.  The report, No Piece of the Pie, uses government data, academic literature, and in-depth illustrative interviews with workers to paint an updated picture of the bleak situation many of them face.

While the food system continues to create jobs, FCWA found, workers in this industry face low wages, few benefits, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination—in many cases at levels much higher than other industries. And although the research was conducted before last week’s election, it arrives at a time when low-wage workers are likely to be particularly vulnerable to cuts to our nation’s social safety net.img_7131

The Key Findings

According to the report, food is now the largest employment sector in the United States, after growing 13 percent from 2010 to 2016.

While the number of food sector jobs has increased significantly, they’re some of the worst jobs around. Food workers earn a median hourly wage of $10 per hour—the lowest of all industries in the country—and patterns of inequality have produced large wage gaps based on gender and race. Confounding the issue is the fact that the percentage of workers in the food system that are covered by union contracts has gone down.

Jose Vega, who worked in sanitation at a processing plant for Taylor Farms, a large supplier of packaged fruits, vegetables, and salads, was paid $9.50 per hour when he first started. “It was not enough to support your family, “ he said.

As a result, many rely on public assistance, with 13 percent of food workers, or 2.8 million people, using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits (or “food stamps”) in 2016.

“I was surprised at the increase in the number of workers who are relying on SNAP benefits,” said FCWA’s co-president Joann Lo. “It’s really sad that the workers we depend on for our food every day have to rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families.”2014-12-20-boycott-king-cheung

The rate of non-fatal workplace-caused injury and illness in the food production sector also went up, from 4.6 cases per hundred workers in 2010 to 5.5 in 2014. This rise didn’t surprise Vega, who detailed the dangers workers at Taylor Farms faced working with sanitizing chemicals.

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“The chemicals in the drain … it would start smelling bad and some people couldn’t handle it. The smell was too strong and your stomach hurts and your eyes burn and you start getting a headache, and a lot of coughing,” he said.

He relayed one story of a chemical spill at the plant in 2015, when 12 workers were sent to the hospital. “The worst thing was, the next day, the manager … got all the workers together in the warehouse, and he told them, ‘you better not talk about what happened here. It might affect the company image and all of you guys might lose your job.’”

The Future for Food Workers Under Trump

One of FCWA’s biggest concerns is the impact the Trump administration will have on immigrants working on farms, in factories, and elsewhere. “We’ve already heard from workers who are really afraid and concerned—even more so than under Obama—that will they get fired, or there will be more discrimination against them because they’re immigrants, whether they’re undocumented or not,” says Lo.

She says her group has also heard from workers who are worried about losing their insurance if this administration overturns the Affordable Care Act, as both Trump and Republicans in Congress have said they will. “The majority of food workers are already on the margins, getting paid such low wages, and not having paid sick days and other benefits,” says Lo. “So losing their health insurance will be another devastating blow.”

The other concern is the impact on workers’ right to organize. “Trump will be able to bring people to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the enforcement of the law that oversees workers right to organize and collectively bargain,” says Lo. FCWA also expects that Trump and a Republican Congress will attempt to change the national right-to-work laws, and that will make it much harder for workers to organize and join the union. This is important because, “as we found in the research for the report, workers who are organized earn 26 percent more than those who are not,” adds Lo.

Unifying the Food Movementenrique-lecheria

During the same period the report covers, consumers were increasingly demanding local, organic food, and voicing concerns about how the food system affects personal health, the environment, and animal welfare. But Lo says she hasn’t always seen that concern translate to an effort to change circumstances for workers.

“So many of the workers in the food system are invisible to foodies and consumers overall,” she said.

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The election could change that, if other activists and organizers in the food movement can come together, however.

Lo sees it as an opportunity for labor groups like FCWA to continue the work they’ve been doing for the last decade to build bridges with advocates working on environmental issues, public health, and fair prices for farmers. On a similar note, she is optimistic that impacted people in a range of communities—from Black communities to Muslims, LGBTQ, women’s rights groups, and immigrant workers—will “join forces” in the months and years ahead.

No Piece of the Pie offers specific steps both policymakers and consumers can take to improve job conditions across the food system, but Lo isn’t very optimistic about seeing anything change for food workers for the better on a national level under the next administration. She does however point to work at the local level, such as advocating for good food purchasing programs and other institutional buying efforts, as additional bright spots in a dim national political landscape. The passage of recent ballot efforts in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Maine that will eventually eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers were also hopeful signs, she adds.

Ultimately, says Lo, the recent changes will prompt a battle with little end in sight. “It’s not a choice.” She says, “We are going to organize and resist the policy changes that Trump’s administration is going to try to push through.”


Photo credits, from top: Nahima Aguiniga (courtesy of UNITE HERE), Reyna Martinez (courtesy of Food Chain Workers Alliance), workers protesting (courtesy of UFCW Local 770), Enrique Lecheria (courtesy of Migrant Justice),

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Larry
    Nice article! I never thought of food service jobs as ines you could support your family. It's a low skilled job that anyone can do. Yet dangerous and unhealthful conditions are unacceptable!
  2. K Mamen
    Thanks for this great article bringing more light to these important issues!

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