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Food Chain Workers: From Fields To Fairness

From field to plate, food can travel miles or minutes, plucked from the backyard or manufactured in processing facilities, thrown away or treasured. This is the reality of a food chain that is both overwhelming, local, scary or familiar. Again and again, the same complicated and simple concepts guide so many Owners through the doors of Willy Street Co-op.

Many ask questions like, “Where was this broccoli grown?” “Is that gluten-free?” “Is this grass-fed?” While these questions are valuable and pertinent, there is an absence of certain questions as well.... “What are the working conditions like in the cashew-processing facility?” “Who picked these strawberries and what is that farmwork like?” “Do the workers in the cereal-distribution factory have the right to organize?” Consumer demand for fair food often refers squarely back to the eater—what we each demand in or out of our foods for ourselves, how they are labeled, what they contain, how they are priced.

Sustainability is then defined predominantly through our own health and well-being—what we purchase, ingest, and feed our families. We also think in terms of our collective environment—the water, soil, and seeds that are constantly in need of defending. We are charged with the task of creating and supporting community efforts to value and grow our local food systems, those that offer clean food, in season and with flavor.

This is an important piece of the puzzle, a crucial philosophy needed in order to carry out a radical shift in our food system. However, the concept of “sustainability” is rarely applied to the dignity and human rights of those who harvest, process, distribute, sell, and serve food. In fact, sustainable food initiatives often fail to incorporate the guidance and input of workers throughout the food chain. Critical re-evaluation of this disconnection is essential, with consumers engaging in ongoing efforts to prioritize the rights of food workers.

“Intense corporate conglomeration in every segment of the food chain has greatly diminished the quality and biodiversity of our food. . . small and mid-sized food enterprises reported that market consolidation has also created unsustainable competition for them. Corporate consolidation has also contributed to unsustainably low wages and benefits for food system workers, in both large corporations and small to mid-size businesses struggling to compete.” -the Food Chain Workers Alliance

The food we eat, like most other “commodities” in this contemporary world, is an intrinsic part of the web of globalized trade. This system of trade has perpetually relied on the exploitation of labor (human beings!) in countries around the world, then back again at home. From chocolate to bananas and coconuts to coffee, the U.S. has sat poised upon a hierarchy of global trade that has fed privileged consumption with one hand and caused intense poverty with the other. Through a complicated set of measures and controls (such as trade agreements and government subsidies), multinational corporations have continuously framed and re-framed their focus on capital, while defining human beings around this fabricated goal.

It is not hard to imagine how human dignity and environmental justice then become barriers to such an ends.

While the global reality of food production and distribution is an incredibly imbalanced map to draw, the U.S. perpetuates a similar pattern within its militarized borders. Food, and food systems, must always be based upon and connected to the land on which food is grown or raised. Our current system has been built upon land that has been co-opted and colonized, land where the “traditional practices of gardening, harvesting, fishing and hunting provided for most Native American communities not only essential nutrition but also the essential physical activities required for good health,” writes Winona LaDuke. “As colonizers drove indigenous people from our territories, we were cut off from access to traditional foods. Starvation and disease became rampant. The forced reliance of inadequate government rations, often called ‘commodity foods’, only changed the starvation from quick and obvious to hidden and slow.”

This painful history of the U.S. food system’s early days also includes the legacy of slavery and indentured servitude of people of color and immigrants. Slavery, like colonization, is not, however, a thing of the past. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida have found workers “living in conditions that include having their arms chained, beingforced to live in box trucks, and suffering from beatings and knife wounds. In the past decade, the CIW has helped workers to call employers to justice for forced servitude in seven cases involving over one thousand workers and more than a dozen employees,” writes Joann Lo and Ariel Jacobson.

Unsurprisingly, the concentration of corporate power and individual wealth in the food system follows the trajectory of other industries and sectors. For example, 80% of the market for meat is controlled by four meat-packing companies. According to “The Hands That Feed Us,” a new extensive report compiled by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the wage gaps between food system CEOs and front line food system workers are unbelievable. Eight top CEOs make a combined income of $200 million in one year. This is the same amount as the combined yearly income of over 10,300 food service workers.

Despite this well-organized consolidation of power among corporate management and ownership, food system workers have the potential to come together and build an inclusive and truly sustainable food movement. But first, the multitude of barriers to this organizing must be fully faced and dismantled.

“The food crisis reflects a deeper crisis—the creation of ‘redundant’ or disposable people. . . Dignity is an experience and consequence of self-organization and sovereignty of sufficiency and satisfaction. I have never found working in the soil or lighting a wood fire lacking in dignity. It is disposability that robs people of their dignity and selfhood.” -Vandana Shiva

Agriculture, processing, distribution, retail, and service: all are facets of the food chain and share the task of supplying a country with sustenance or empty calories, tomatoes or trans fats. As sectors of employment, these jobs share poor wages and working conditions. Out of the eight lowest-paying jobs in the country, five are in the food system. Both meat-packing and agriculture are repeatedly named as two of the most hazardous occupations in the U.S.

The labor force in these working environments is often highly segregated. Workers of different races and ethnicities are often separated from one another, exploiting differences to prevent workers from organizing together. Young workers in grocery/retail, immigrant workers in farm and processing, and workers of color throughout all five sectors are regularly subjected to discrimination through hiring, promotion, disciplinary practices, and task delegation. Wages are often withheld, overtime goes unpaid, sick time is very rarely allowed.

In restaurant occupations, white workers are many times assigned/hired for front-of-house jobs, like hosting, bartending, and serving. Workers of color are predominantly assigned back-of-house jobs, like cooking and dishwashing. Besides the huge pay differences between front- and back-of-house jobs, this system perpetuates historical divide-and-conquer tactics. A sense of precariousness in the restaurant industry also fuels a looming sense of job insecurity. The Food Chain Workers Alliance reports that “the National Restaurant Alliance has successfully lobbied to keep the federal minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 for the last 21 years. . . As a result, restaurant servers have three times the poverty rate and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce.”

Within the agricultural and warehouse sectors, job insecurity often translates into the seasonality of the work. Many workers are hired as non-standard (temporary) employees. This makes it difficult for workers to build relationships with employers, and also contributes to wage theft. Workers who are undocumented also experience wage theft at more than double the rate of other workers. Joann Lo and Ariel Jacobson point out that “in the current environment of high unemployment, some would suggest that a low-paying job is better than none at all. Yet poverty-level wages are unsustainable for both the long-term health of workers and for the economy.” They note that “food is a human right, and the human rights of those who produce our food, from field to table, should be respected as well. . . One of the most direct ways to improve access to good food in low-income communities is to raise the wages of those workers.”

“Government bureaucrats look at you a little bit sideways when you raise the issue of human rights. . . It’s only credible when you raise the issue in Sudan or South America. But whenever you deny or taint a food source for a people, it really is about human rights.” -Leaf Hillman, Karuk Tribe Vice-Chairman

With 20 million food system workers in the U.S. (1/6 of the entire workforce), the responsibility for creating fair working conditions is upon all of us who eat food. How, as a society, have we benefited from invisibilizing food workers, both nationally and internationally? What have we sacrificed, what have we lost?

Echoing the sentiments that food and health are human rights, food system workers also deserve access to clean, healthy foods that nourish our bodies and support our well-being. Yet it is common for poorly-paid workers to purchase cheap, highly processed foods, as the cycle of low wages and low food costs perpetuates. In line with this, the ability to take lunch and other short breaks on the job is often nonexistent in certain food sector occupations. Some workers are not offered daily respite, regardless of the law. Other workers do not take breaks because of the demanding work, as it would inevitably pile up if their fast pace was halted. These realities contribute to the overall health of workers when we acknowledge that maintaining health means much more than avoiding and recovering from sickness.

Is it sustainable to stress a body with repetitive movements, whether it be harvesting watermelons, waiting tables, or working the line in a food-packaging facility? Agricultural employees subjected to pesticides, restaurant workers repeatedly exposed to toxic oven-cleaning chemicals, and meat-packing workers utilizing unsafe equipment are common examples of human rights violations in food sector employment. Debilitating stress on muscles and joints can occur while picking vegetables, emptying shopper’s baskets, moving boxes in a warehouse, bussing tables, and many other types of sustained repetitive movements. In fact, many food sector jobs are often based around constant routine movements, oftentimes with a “by the piece” pay rate that demands a detrimental pace, creating long-term injuries for workers.

Beyond repetitive motions, missing lunch breaks, low wages, and discrimination on the job based on race, immigration status, and gender, the health of food system workers is further threatened by basic access to health care. In this context, “care” can be described as days of rest, a visit to health care professionals, or care-taking by or for others. The inevitable reality of personal or familial illness can manifest physically, mentally, or emotionally. Yet, food system workers notoriously lack basic benefits, with 83% not receiving health insurance, and 79% not having paid sick days. Many express the inability to take unpaid sick days as well. “Due to a lack of sick days provided by employers, more than half (53%) of the workers surveyed reported picking, processing, selling, cooking and serving food while sick, an average of at least three days per year. . Without basic benefits. . . we put the nation’s food supply at tremendous risk on a daily basis,” the FCWA reports. Exposure to extreme heat and weather conditions (in the fields) and extreme coldness (in processing facilities) compounds the environmental conditions and the health of the employees, who must carry out their jobs regardless.

“You cannot determine your destiny if you cannot feed your community.” -White Earth Land Recovery Project
Let’s be honest. This information is depressing and overwhelming, which is likely the reason that many people turn away from fully absorbing it. Yet food system workers are not simply victims of an all-powerful system; workers, along with consumers and policymakers, have the ability to transform these circumstances. Many coalitions, organizations, cooperatives, and communities have been working towards these goals for many years.

Food system workers have the incredible power to organize and advocate for fair working conditions, and should be supported by food consumers to achieve these ends. Employers should practice fair, non-discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, increase wages and benefits to workers, adequately train all employees and provide safe working conditions, communicate policies clearly—especially in regards to time off, and allow workers the right to organize and collectively bargain. All food consumers also possess the ability to unite and demand responsible employers and equitable working conditions.

“People in the industrialized world are talking of ‘re-ruralization’ as a way to reduce emissions and dependence on oil by reducing food miles. . . Rejuvenating small local farmers is emerging as a core element of food security policy, environmental security policy, and energy security policy,” writes Vandana Shiva. Supporting efforts to create shorter food chains that are close to home is also a way of building more transparency and accountability into a food system. Smaller farmers and businesses do compete in a challenging global economy, yet their potential to feed the community surpasses the exchange of food. Encouraging businesses to treat employees with dignity and fairness is something all consumers can do. Detroit restaurant owner Phillip Cooley speaks to the need to pay restaurant workers livable wages: “It is sad to see people’s dreams of creating a community space, with good food and joy destroyed because they don’t take care of the most important piece of the restaurant—their employees.”

In honor of 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives, the Domestic Fair Trade Association also passed a resolution acknowledging that “co-operatives play a particularly important role in the food system, and have the potential to empower producers, workers and consumers to bring about positive change in the way food is grown, harvested, processed and distributed.” As co-op Owners, we are also stakeholders in the food system, and have the ability to support and empower workers within it.

“Be it further resolved that the Dane County Board of Supervisors hereby directs the Food Council to work with county departments, not-for-profit organizations, and others to identify barriers to access to healthy food and means of local food production, including racial disparities in this regard, and develop initiatives to overcome these barriers by furthering a sustainable local foods system, which results in the creation of employment, in Dane County.” -Food is a Human Right Resolution

While Dane County touts a vibrant local foods movement, the food justice movement deserves support, funding, and advocacy. These initiatives have been spear-headed by many organizations, particularly those led by people of color and immigrants.
Freedom Inc has been at the forefront of the “Food is a Human Right” campaign, which is a part of their broader Health Justice Project. This campaign aims to create access to land, access to healthy foods, and access to good jobs. Recently, in focusing on policy-making, their Food is a Human Right resolution was passed unanimously by the Dane County Board of Supervisors on June 7th, 2012.

Willy Street Co-op awarded the Workers’ Rights Center a Community Reinvestment Fund grant in 2012, which is being used towards compiling a restaurant guide to understanding working conditions in food establishments throughout Madison. The WRC “seeks to affirm the dignity of work and the dignity and respect that should be afforded to all members of our community, as expressed in the social teachings of many faiths.”

The Farley Center empowers small farmers through their farm incubator, land link, and farmer education programs. Along with this, the farmers who shared land at the Farley Center formed the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative two years ago. Their website notes that “the co-op has now expanded to include eight farm businesses, all owned by Hmong, Latino and African American farmers.”
As consumers, we are privileged to have access to many local vibrant farmers markets, tasty local restaurants, as well as multiple grocery cooperatives. While the route that our food dollars travel is an essential piece of the larger picture, the Food Chain Workers Alliance notes that “the time and care given to selecting locally grown food or seeking out organic eateries has become a form of social protest that is ‘more alluring than conventional political channels. . . it is often easier to express one’s politics through a food purchase, than it is to find the time to write a letter, attend a protest, or participate in social movement politics.’” Yet the food system must be transformed by methods that stretch beyond consumerism. We are part of the food chain, and must educate and support others to include fair and healthy working conditions within our definition of sustainable food.

To support the work of local organizations, contact (and donate to!)

  • Workers Rights Center:

  • Freedom Inc:

  • The Farley Center for Peace and Justice:

Many thanks to these authors and resources:

  • The Food Chain Workers Alliance, “The Hands That Feed Us”

  • Jacobson, Ariel, and Joann Lo, “Human Rights from Field to Fork: Improving Labor Conditions for Food-sector Workers by Organizing across Boundaries”

  • LaDuke, Winona. Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming.

  • Shiva, Vandana. Soil not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis.