Race, Labor, and Justice: We Are What We Eat

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers & allies march for their rights.

It’s no secret that the food justice movement is gaining momentum with great gusto. Everyone from celebrities to high profile politicians to plaid-wearing hipster kids is encouraging the world to consume more locally grown, organic, and consciously grown and distributed food. Urban farming and gardening is on the rise, with more and more communities taking food production into their own hands or participating in Community Supported Agriculture programs. Between the years of 2000 and 2010, the number of operating farmers markets in the United States almost doubled. These advances are to be applauded, and heartily – but in the movement for food justice, a movement based on encouraging people to re-imagine their relationship with food – whose voices aren’t being recognized?

The disheartening answer, according to research recently released by the Applied Research Center, is communities of color. The Color of Food, a new report surveying the food system alongside the race, gender, and class of workers across the supply chain, exhibits some disconcerting findings. A few of the most prominent are:

• People of color typically make less than whites in the food system, including within specific occupations.

White men make the highest wages of all race and gender groups working in the food system. Half of white food workers earn $25,024 per year while workers of color make $5,675 less than that. White women earn 63 cents for every dollar in median wage earned by white men, and women of color, in turn, earn less than half of every dollar a white man earns in the food system.

• Few people of color hold management positions in the food system.

Whites overwhelmingly dominate high earning jobs within the food system – in fact, almost half of all white men working in the food system are employed as managers. People of color, on the other hand, represent less than 10% of comparable positions.

• People of color are overrepresented in low-wage jobs in the food system.

According to the 2008 census, 34.6% of the general population is people of color, however they represent 50% of food production workers and 45% of those working in processing, which includes some of the most dangerous food supply jobs. Whites, on the other hand, who make up 65% of the general population, represent 55% of food processing workers, and 58% of food service workers.

What the research exhibited here can teach us is that it’s not enough to simply eat food that is free of pesticides, purchased directly from the grower, and environmentally conscious. A movement for true food justice must include advocacy for the integrity, dignity, and respect for the people who grow, produce, distribute, and serve us our food every day.

Racial disparity in wages and job representation, as the study shows, can be found in almost every occupation within the food industry. The report notes in its conclusion that the recent slew of anti-immigration laws will further hinder recent and undocumented immigrants, as well as those typically perceived to be undocumented, from finding safe, regulated work in much of the United States, unless there is a greater push for a humane and well-functioning immigration system that places emphasis on respecting workers’ human dignity, including those whose efforts are so integral to the food we consume.

In order to be truly effective, the growing movement for food justice must work to integrate discourses of food, labor, and racial justice, as well as commit to establishing greater career mobility, health and retirement benefits, and better, safer working conditions within the food industry. An exciting leap forward were the 2011 Food and Justice Youth Summits across the country. A little over a week ago, the Northeast Summit took place at Northeastern University in Boston this past weekend – the largest youth food and justice convergence in history, uniting over 600 high school and college students in an effort to ignite food justice organizing and activism. The summit closed with a joyful, powerful march for farmworkers’ rights directed at Stop & Shop, and led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: despite the cold, windy weather – an inspiration to all who stand in solidarity with the movement for a just and sustainable world!

Senti Sojwal works with PopDev as a research and writing assistant. She is a second year student at Hampshire College where she is concentrating on creative writing and race and gender studies. A native New Yorker, Senti is a voracious lover of literature and hopes to someday travel the world in search of light and laughter.

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