Do You Have Any Idea Who's Bringing You Dinner?

Most food industry workers are overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and food insecure.

An employee performs a freshness inspection at the Schafer Fisheries Inc. processing facility in Thomson, Ill., the Midwest's largest processor and distributor of fresh fish and frozen seafood. (Photo by: Bloomberg / Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

As we order our food, we barely make eye contact with them. They are gargled voices on the other end of a drive-thru intercom, the ones blocking our way as we hurry through the supermarket aisle, a stereotype lampooned in movies and on comedy shows. Worse yet, they’re invisible as we place a box of pasta in our grocery basket or bake a free-range chicken.

They’re the 20 million workers in the U.S. food system – planters, pickers, packers, warehouse workers, drivers, line cooks, sellers and servers. As a whole, they are overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and food insecure — and largely unnoticed by society.

Thanksgiving week, in which Americans will doubtless eat and shop themselves silly, carries with it the potential to exacerbate our ignorance (and borderline exploitation) of workers in the food industry. But organizers of the inaugural International Food Workers Week (Nov. 18-24) say the season is ideal for remembering these forgotten ones.

“Thanksgiving week is a time when people are focused on what they’re thankful for, and obviously there’s a focus on eating food with family and friends and being thankful for what we have in our lives,” says Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a membership coalition advocating for fair treatment of food workers that is organizing the week’s activities. “We hope people will also be thankful for the workers who are responsible for getting the food on their plates.”

Taken as a whole, the food system is the largest private sector employer in the country. Its workers are some of America's most vulnerable people, according to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, whose members include 16 unions, worker’s centers, and advocacy groups representing more than 170,000 employees. In June, the organization released a report — “The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain” — in which it surveyed more than 600 food industry workers and 50 employers. Its findings were troubling:

  • 13 percent earned a living wage (25 percent earned less than a minimum wage)
  • 58 percent didn’t have any type of health insurance
  • 80 percent either aren’t offered paid sick days or don’t know if they are
  • A majority had suffered some sort of illness or injury on the job
  • Ironically, the food industry is more likely than any other to have employees who suffer from food insecurity (1/3 of them do)

Currently, the FCWA is lobbying to increase the federal minimum wage. Lo says the minimum wage for tip workers ($2.13), for instance, has not increased in 21 years. It studied the impact raising the minimum wage would have on food prices and found that on average, the increase would only be 10 cents per person, per day. The Alliance has set up an online petition where consumers can pledge their willingness to pay a dime more per day so that food workers can receive a fair wage.

“Food workers would benefit the most, because food workers are earning minimum wage than any other industry,” she says.

Many organizations and church groups are sponsoring events to commemorate International Food Workers Week. (click here to find one in your area) Additionally, the FCWA is sponsoring the following nationwide actions:

  • Nov. 14-21 - Join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for a Thanksgiving Supermarket Week of Action calling on the holdouts (Publix, Kroger, Ahold USA) to join the growing tide of Fair Food.

  • Nov. 23 - Take action with Wal-Mart Store and Warehouse Workers around the country on Black Friday.

  • “Learn, Reflect, Take Action” menu for ideas of what you can do – also detailed here!  You can view the online version of the menu in English and Spanish, or download the print version in English and/or Spanish.

  • Contact the FCWA if you would like a 12”x18” size of the poster (in English or in Spanish) by emailing info [@] foodchainworkers.org.  You can also download the poster in English and Spanish.

On an ongoing basis, here are a few more ways you can support food industry workers with your dollars:

  • Sign the FCWA’s petition to raise the minimum wage.

  • Download and use the 2013 National Diners Guide, produced by Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, when it is released in early December. The guide will rate the largest grocery, restaurant, and food service chains on their wages, benefits, and opportunities for advancement.

  • Download the new smartphone app from the United Food and Commercial Workers to locate unionized supermarkets in your area.

  • Look for and purchase products endorsed by the Domestic Fair Trade Association, which promotes businesses that have committed to the rights of organized labor, fair prices for farmers, and other food justice principles.

Were you aware of the challenges food industry workers face? What's one thing you can commit to doing to help?

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