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The Hands That Feed Us

Written by Joann Lo, Executive Director of Food Chain Workers Alliance and LAFPC Leadership Board Member. A shortened version of this article is featured on page 35 in our 2013 Los Angeles Food System Snapshot, available here.

“When I arrived in this country, you conform to what is given. I came by myself. It’s very difficult living here without knowing anyone, not knowing where a store is, not having money to buy water or bread. When you find a job, if they offer you $50, you don’t have to think about it – you need this money, so you take it.” – Jose Juan Romero, restaurant worker & former food processing worker

The food system employs almost 20 million people in the U.S., comprising one-sixth of the nation’s workforce, making it the largest employment sector in the country. In Los Angeles County, one in seven people work in the food system. This includes workers on farms and in food, meat, and poultry processing plants, warehouse and distribution centers, grocery and other food retail stores, restaurants and food service.

foodsys_jobs_whiteThe vast majority of jobs along the food chain are, unfortunately, bad jobs. In a national survey of food system workers, the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) found that only 13.5% of the more than 600 workers surveyed earn a livable wage, meaning that almost seven out of every eight workers are earning subminimum, poverty, or low wages. The median wage of surveyed workers was $9.65 per hour. As a result, food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce. Food workers across the country also use SNAP benefits, or food stamps, at over 1.5 times the rate of the general workforce.

The survey also revealed that 79% of the workers don’t have paid sick days or don’t know if they have paid sick days. Because of the lack of paid sick days, 53% of the surveyed workers said they had gone to work sick. This can have major implications for public health and food safety.

Jose Juan Romero, a restaurant worker, explained that one time he was so sick, “I didn’t go to work for three days. When I got my check, it was only $100 and I had to pay rent that day, which is $300 – I couldn’t buy food or my Metro card.”

The situation for the majority of food workers is terrible – low wages, no benefits, discrimination, no opportunities for training and advancement – but in researching its report, the FCWA also found out that some employers do treat their employees well and still make a profit. One of these employers profiled in its report is Good Girl Dinette, a local restaurant in Highland Park, run by Chef-Owner Diep Tran. Not only does Diep pay fair wages and serve food that is local, sustainable, and seasonal, she works to ensure that her restaurant reflects her values.

“When I interview someone, I tell them right off the bat, ‘We don’t tolerate homophobia, sexism, racism, or any kind of harassment, and if you have a problem with that, then this is not the place for you,’” she says.

In other places, workers are organizing to address issues like low wages, lack of benefits, and mistreatment on the job. You can find more information on these organizing campaigns and about food system workers at www.foodchainworkers.org.