Just four days before Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman of color chosen as the running mate of a major U.S. political party’s (presumptive) presidential nominee, she co-authored an op-ed in CNN calling on grocery store chains to reinstate “hazard pay.”
“While top grocery chains rake in billions in profits during this pandemic, these frontline workers cannot choose to work from home like the corporate executives of these companies do,” Harris wrote with Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). “The responsibility to properly protect and support store workers lies with these executives, who must make the decision to consistently pay workers a wage that justly compensates them for the clear and present dangers of their jobs during the pandemic.”
Harris’s decision to stand up for grocery store workers months after news crews had left supermarkets, and shoppers had stopped panic-buying, isn’t surprising to those familiar with her record in the food, water, and agriculture sectors.
“Short of having somebody who has actually worked in the food system or has experienced hunger themselves, she’s about as good as they get on food and hunger,” Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the nonpartisan Western Center on Law & Poverty, told Civil Eats.
A native of California, the country’s largest agricultural state, Harris has sponsored legislation to improve working conditions for farmworkers, expand food and water access, and protect the environment. Her advocacy landed her the coveted endorsement of the United Farm Workers (UFW) before she suspended her 2020 presidential campaign in December. And when Joe Biden named her as his vice president pick on August 11, leaders of numerous farm and grocery workers unions and of food and environmental groups celebrated the news.
In a statement from the UFW, President Teresa Romero pointed to Harris’s long history of working directly with the organization, including participating in farmworker marches and the 2016 UFW convention.
“She led the fight for equal treatment and protection of America’s farmworkers as a U.S. senator by authoring the current federal bill providing overtime pay after eight hours a day for agricultural workers,” Romero said. “As California’s attorney general she lobbied the governor to sign California’s landmark law in 2016 providing phased-in overtime and to strengthen state rules preventing worker deaths and illnesses from extreme heat.”
Labor, food, and environmental activists now see an opportunity to increase farmworker pay, fund food assistance programs, and strengthen climate protections.
During her presidential campaign last year, Harris also marched with McDonald’s workers in Las Vegas demanding $15 hourly pay, noting that she “did the French fries and the ice cream” while working at the food chain in her youth.
Her support of workers all along the food chain has run parallel to her efforts to ensure that vulnerable Americans have access to food and water during the pandemic.
With Harris and Biden on the Democratic ticket, labor, food, and environmental activists see an opportunity to undo the Trump administration’s plans to lower farmworker pay, cut food assistance programs, and roll back climate protections. Should Biden win the election, they say that Harris’s presence could lead to significant policy shifts from the White House.
Fairness for Farmworkers
Senator Harris has several times introduced legislation to provide overtime pay for farmworkers. The 2019 version of Fairness for Farm Workers Act would give overtime pay to those who work more than 40 hours a week in the field. It also ends exemptions to employers in industries such as small-scale farming, sugar processing, and cotton ginning from overtime pay requirements.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that many farmworkers—people who often work over 12 hours a day in the hot sun—do not receive overtime pay for the hard work they do to put food on the tables of American families,” Harris said when reintroducing the act last year.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that many farmworkers . . . do not receive overtime pay for the hard work they do to put food on the tables of American families.”
The bill currently sits in committee, but even if it’s not passed, it raises awareness about the working conditions of farmworkers, more than 2 million of whom don’t receive employment protections while earning wages of between $15,000 to $17,499 on average annually. Harris’s bill also points to the fact that, every day, 100 farmworkers suffer job-related injuries that put them at risk of missing work.
In a similar vein, Harris cosponsored the Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019 (now in the Committee on the Judiciary) to give “blue card” status to farmworkers who have done agricultural labor for at least 100 days over the past two years, giving them a legal right to work in the U.S., and providing a path to a green card. An estimated 60 percent of California’s farmworkers are undocumented, and they are not spared from the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement guidelines. And even those authorized to be in the country on H-2A visas face the possibility that Trump will cut their wages.
Since Harris doesn’t sit on the agriculture committee, her advocacy for farmworkers is all the more noteworthy, Bartholow asserts. “I think that’s unique about her as a senator. There are some members—Representatives Jimmy Gomez and Ilhan Omar come to mind—who will step out and say, ‘I know I’m not on the committee, but nobody’s introducing this legislation, and my community says it’s important.’ They’re rare, and Kamala Harris is one of them. She pushes envelopes when she sees an injustice.”
Fighting Food Insecurity
Harris’s senatorial record indicates that, for her, food justice isn’t just about improving pay and protections for workers. It also involves combating food insecurity, particularly amidst the pandemic.
In May, Harris introduced both the Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2020 and the bipartisan FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act. The former bill expands Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for Americans in need during the pandemic. And the latter bill allows the federal government to pay all costs necessary to allow states and localities to partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare nutritious meals for vulnerable people, such as low-income children and seniors.
“Right now, SNAP benefits equal about $1.35 per meal, not nearly enough for anyone to buy a nutritious meal,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nonpartisan anti-hunger advocacy group. “And that’s why a lot of SNAP benefits that are supposed to last a month last two or three weeks. This would be a fairly hefty expansion of the safety net but a much needed one, especially since healthier foods often cost more than less healthy foods.”
Berg described Harris as one of the anti-hunger movement’s “great champions in the Senate.” Because he views food insecurity as closely linked to poverty, he cited Harris’s support of a $15 national minimum wage as deeply relevant to the anti-hunger movement. The same can be said for her support of farmworkers, he argued.
“I think anyone who cares about hunger realizes that among the hungriest people in America are those who grow and pick our food,” Berg said. “No one in America should go hungry, but the fact that the people who are feeding us are is shameful.”
Harris has also addressed food insecurity among college students during the pandemic, requesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allow them continued access to SNAP benefits if the COVID-19 crisis has left them jobless. She signed onto a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that described the food insecurity that existed among college students before the pandemic hit.
In fact, in July 2019, Harris introduced the Basic Assistance for Students in College Act to ensure that students receiving Pell Grants, attending community colleges, or minority-serving institutions could afford necessities such as food. More than 30 percent of college students may face food insecurity, according to the Government Accountability Office, and the problem disproportionately affects students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and those living in areas without access to grocery stores or restaurants.
At the Intersection of Racial and Environmental Justice
Harris, a cosponsor of the Green New Deal, is also known as an environmental justice advocate. On July 30, she joined Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), in introducing the Environmental Justice for All Act, aimed at achieving health equity and climate justice for all, but particularly communities of color. Among other measures, it would require that cumulative impacts of more than one potentially toxic substance be considered in permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and establish programs to ensure more equitable access to parks and the outdoors.
“Confronting generations of systemic racism to achieve true justice will require us to recognize the role environmental racism has played and redress that by investing in long-term, sustainable environmental justice solutions to center and empower communities that have for far too long been excluded,” Harris said when the legislation was announced.
In July alone, Harris also introduced bills to protect consumers from utility shut-offs and to ensure the nation’s water supply is safe and sustainable, drawing on her Water Justice Act of 2019. This year, she also pushed for a comprehensive investment in keeping water affordable in the next coronavirus relief package.
“Keeping water service flowing during a pandemic is essential for keeping families safe,” Mary Grant, Food & Water Watch’s Public Water for All campaign director, told Civil Eats. “In recent years, [Harris] has introduced water legislation that emphasized racial and economic justice and that would provide the billions of dollars in federal funding that will be necessary to provide safe, affordable drinking water for all.”
The Senator’s 2020 presidential campaign slogan was “Kamala Harris for the people,” and Hunger Free America’s Berg sees that mentality as key to serving in the White House in the coming years.
“It’s critical to make sure that people in those positions are competent, have progressive values, [are] honest, and put the public first,” he said.
The Western Center on Law & Poverty’s Bartholow added that the anti-hunger community would be relieved not to have to spend time fighting an administration that passes policies that make food inaccessible to large swathes of Americans.
The new administration can choose its own path, Bartholow said. “And I can’t imagine a scenario in which an administration that includes Kamala Harris would support the lawless rulemaking that’s taking place now.”