We Need Better Food. We Need Fairer Food Jobs. So Let’s Get Both.

In a new report, Colorlines' publisher asks: What could happen if the people who work to ensure good eating and those who fight for labor rights were to strategize together, and move projects that address both concerns?

By Rinku Sen Jul 10, 2012

Today, Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center, released a new report on the potential for bringing together two movements: one that works on good food and one that works on good jobs. These vibrant movements are successful in many ways on their own, but we theorized that new possibilities would open up if they collaborate on joint projects that address the need for good, healthy food in communities nationwide, as well as the need for good, healthy jobs in the food chain.

National attention to obesity, diabetes and other health issues have provided an opening to examine eating habits and access to food. The food chain itself, which starts with agriculture and ends at your dinner table, constitutes an enormous section of the economy, with production, processing and distribution comprising 10-15 percent of many local economies. Yet, the people who work in that food chain are deeply segregated by race, gender and immigration status and the working conditions for too many are marked with unpaid wages and unsafe labor practices.

What could happen, we wondered, if the people who work to ensure good eating and those who fight for labor rights were to strategize together and move projects that addressed both issues simultaneously? Such collaborative thinking would force us to deal with the systems that cause health problems like obesity and workplace problems. Poverty is both a factor and an outcome in both issues, and poverty, as we know, is deeply raced and gendered.

Our findings showed that low-income people and people of color are most disproportionately, negatively impacted by: obesity, food security, food deserts, wage and hour violations, and lack of benefits. Yet, the movements for good food and labor rights do not typically work together towards food justice, and often don’t have an analysis that would allow them to do so.

We conducted a survey of 186 groups and interviews with more than 25 leaders in the food and labor worlds, finding both potential for and obstacles to collaboration in each movement. While we found that all the organizations faced real challenges in moving forward such alliances, the organizations that were more multiracial were a little better equipped to look at the broader landscape and make important connections. Diversity of staffing and membership is important not just because it’s morally correct, but because it increases a group’s strategic capacity.

The "good food" movement promotes healthy food, available to all, that is sustainably grown through small-scale, local, seasonal, organic production. Although a thread of that movement has focused on access for people of color and poor people, the dominant elements of food discourse are heavily about individual choice and personal responsibility rather than systemic barriers to eating well. We describe, for example, a conflict in Slow Food U.S.A over their recent "$5 challenge" (bring a dish to a potluck that costs less than $5 to make). Long-time foodie leaders objected mightily to an emphasis on affordability, calling it an affront to the small organic farmers whose food they want people to buy. The dominant messages in "good food" consist of exhorting people to buy organic, leave behind fast food and cook at home. Systemic issues of access (who grants all those fast food licenses for poor neighborhoods?) get too little attention, as do wonderful production and distribution innovations in poor communities. In defining "good food" the movement often leaves out crucial factors such as wages, immigration status, and safe conditions.

On the labor side, groups that protect the rights of workers have made significant progress in changing debates and policies, but have reached nothing close to the scale on which food industries as a whole operate. Victories by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United show that people do care about workplace conditions; yet slum housing is not uncommon in farmworker communities and the minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t risen in more than 20 years. Labor groups have to think about the consumer too, searching for mutual interests. Many labor advocates don’t address how and why food security and land sovereignty relate to their struggles for workers. Developing collaborative efforts between these movements is key to winning both good food and good jobs.

We found five opportunities for linking the two movements. They involve tying restaurant liquor licenses to labor reviews; supporting subsidies for small and medium-sized manufacturers of ethnic cuisines; creating food purchasing agreements with local and state governments; subsidizing retailers in poor communities and expanding the use of Community Benefits Agreements in public subsidies to advance food security as well as labor rights. To pursue any of these to scale, the fields have to increase their ability to coalesce, broaden their analysis and build alternative systems even while they challenge the existing ones. That would generate some exciting results, which we look forward to supporting. Please join us for a webinar this Thursday on the Good Food and Good Jobs for All report.