Are foodies in the US finally taking note of workers? For a long time now, a growing number of consumers have been concerned about the ethical impact of their food choices. Free-range, buying “local,” and organic arose in part because people worried about how their food consumption affected their health, animals, or the environment. Yet this concern rarely extends to the workers in the food system.
Is this changing? The twenty million workers in the US food system have received some well-deserved attention recently, with the release of the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance new report, The Hands that Feed Us. In response, Mark Bittman, writing in the NYT, noted that “If you care about sustainability – the capacity to endure – it’s time to expand our definition to include workers.” Grist, meanwhile, described workers as “the food movement’s final frontier.”
The Hands that Feed Us details many of the issues facing food workers throughout the food chain, from production (farmworkers) all the way to restaurant and retail workers. It notes that there are some decent jobs in the food system, but stresses that “most jobs in the food system provide low wages with little access to health benefits and opportunities for advancement.” The report also explains how “sustainable food hasn’t always meant sustainable labor practices,” supplying examples of companies that pride themselves on sustainability yet maintain poor working conditions.
The report argues that consumers can help shape a better food system, and ends with a list of recommendations for policymakers, consumers, and employers. Suggestions for policymakers include increasing the minimum wage (including the minimum wage for tipped workers, an appalling $2.13/hour), guaranteeing benefits such as paid sick days (who wants sick people handling their food, anyway?), increasing penalties for employers who exploit workers, and guaranteeing workers the right to organize. As for consumers, the report recommends that they support responsible food employers, tell employers at restaurants and retail shops that they care about workers’ wages and benefits, and engage with policymakers and other consumers about the issues. All important steps, though sometimes easier said than done! If you want to start engaging on the issues more, I highly recommend taking a closer look at the report here.