Food Workers Scramble to Put Food on Their Tables

By Tracie McMIllan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • Nov. 14, 2016

One in seven American workers is employed in some segment of the food chain, from apple pickers to packing-house workers, truckdrivers to supermarket clerks to fast food counter staff. And many of them increasingly struggle to put food on their own tables, according to a report released Monday from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, an advocacy group founded in 2009, and the Solidarity Research Center. What’s more, the problem is worse among women and people of color.

Thirteen percent of the 21.5 million workers in America’s food system received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2016, the program formerly known as food stamps. That’s compared to an average of 6 percent of workers claiming these benefits in all other U.S. industries combined. In 2010, 11 percent of food workers used the program, while other workers averaged 6 percent use.

Food chain workers “aren’t being paid enough so that they can afford enough food for themselves,” says Joann Lo, executive director of the FCWA. Average hourly wages among food workers range from about $9 an hour in food service, to $19 an hour for workers in transportation and warehousing—significantly lower than the median nonfarm wage of $25.92 an hour. Over the past year, all American workers saw wages increase by just under 3 percent, according to the fall jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What’s more, the wage gap between white men and all other groups working in food is astonishingly high, with gender a greater disadvantage than race. For every dollar white men earned in food system jobs from 2010 to 2014, white women earned 47 cents—compared to 60 cents for black men, 76 cents for Latino men, and 81 cents for Asian men. Women of color earned even less: 42 cents for black women, 45 cents for Latino women, and 58 cents for Asian women. That’s significantly higher than the wage gap faced across the workforce, where women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The new report comes at a time when understanding the food chain as a workplace, rather than just a consumer product, has become increasingly common. In 2011, the Applied Research Center published “The Color of Food,” examining the racial and gender divides among food workers. The following year, FCWA published another analysis of labor in the food system, “The Hands That Feed Us.” This report is largely an update.

Despite the increased awareness, the election of Republican Donald Trump to the presidency is unlikely to improve the plight of food workers, says Lo. Republicans typically do not support wage increases and they push for cuts to programs like SNAP. Indeed, the National Restaurant Association, a trade group backed by McDonald’s, Darden and other food service groups—which employ more than half of all food workers—has opposed increasing wages and spent more than 80 percent of its political contributions on Republican candidates, according to a 2014 report on the group by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’ rights group. Last week, the NRA posted an election analysis on its website telling members the group expected to see “burdensome regulations” lifted under a Trump administration, and singled out a recent expansion of overtime pay coverage as a likely target.

Indeed, says Lo, Trump may also weaken workers’ rights at a more structural level. “Trump is going to appoint people to the National Labor Relations Board,” says Lo, “and we assume there will be a national ‘right to work’ law,” which hampers unionization efforts.

The one bright spot for food workers in the emerging political landscape, says Lo, has been the success of minimum wage efforts at the local level around the country. In the last three years,cities and counties across the country have passed laws raising their minimum wage above the federal standard, many inspired by the Fight for $15 campaign, a four-year-old effort that grew out of fast food worker protests in New York City.

Last Tuesday, voters in Maine and Flagstaff, Arizona approved laws eradicating the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, and four states—Arizona, California, Maine and Washington—also voted to increase their minimum wage.

And while labor groups have roundly worried about the prognosis for labor rights under a Trump administration, Lo noted that many advocacy efforts had begun focusing on local campaigns. “We’re going to continue our work at the local level,” says Lo. “That’s one of our beacons of hope.”

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