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by Joann Lo, Executive Director, and Jose Oliva, Associate Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is a coalition of unions and worker organizations fighting for a better food system for everyone. One important way to help us achieve this? Advocate for better wages and conditions for food chain workers.

In the five years since the founding of the FCWA, we have witnessed a transformation in the food movement and in our larger society vis-a-vis food. In 2009, we could already see the consciousness around food growing in the U.S. Members of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, one of our founding groups, witnessed the shifting attitude of consumers who asked workers for more local, organic, good food at restaurants all around the country, not just in big cities. Another one of our founding members, CATA – the Farmworker Support Committee, noticed growers were also changing their practices, as more and more acres of land became earmarked for organic production.

However, the conditions for workers, from the fields of California to meatpacking plants in Missouri, from warehouses outside Chicago to the kitchens of Washington, D.C. and food retail stores in New York City, were still deplorable. The wages didn’t change, and oftentimes workers couldn’t afford the food they were growing and serving, forcing many of them to depend on food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Food workers continue to be one of the most food-insecure groups in the US.

If, in fact, part of the strategy to transform our food system is to move the market in the direction of good organic, local, sustainable food for all, then the largest group of workers in the market will have to demand that change as well, and be able to afford it. This “slow food” can’t be just for middle-class or upwardly mobile highly educated people.

Food Workers Unite

Food workers comprise nearly 1/6 of the entire U.S. workforce, or about 20 million people. They grow, package, process, transport, prepare, and sell the food we eat. When the Alliance started, we knew that there was a broader “food movement” and that organizations like Slow Food USA were largely responsible for the positive changes in the food consciousness that our members were noticing in their sectors.

We have since noted 3 distinct categories of organizations doing work around food:

1) groups that want the system to change because of what conventional food does to our bodies and our health;

2) groups that are concerned with what food does in our communities, through the explicit denial of good food options, while saturating those same communities with bad food options; and

3) organizations working on what the industrial food system does to the environment and the earth. The aim of all of these groups is the same: transformingthe conventional, corporate food system into one that addresses human and environmental needs first and foremost, even before profits.

But it soon became clear that food workers are the too-often-invisible fourth sector wanting this same thing. But they are adding another dimension to the transformation: a food system that provides dignified work and livable wages.

Since 2009, we have seen an explosion of activity and synergy between the four sectors as we have all became aware of one another and of our mutual goals. This past year has been momentous for our members and for food workers as we have witnessed the rapid expansion of urban farming and farmers markets, as well as the largest fast-food strikes in history. There is a growing consciousness that we must create the food system we want now.

The Future of Food

We stand at a crossroads. Down one road we see corporate power conglomerating and food corporations buying each other out in an ever-larger scale. The danger of this path is obvious and disturbing. For instance, the Chicago Public School system was expanding the use of frozen, pre-plated food. New schools weren’t even being built with full kitchens, just “warming” kitchens. All of this was being done under the guise of cutting costs, even though the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and the over-abundance of processed sugars will cost taxpayers much more in the long-run when these children begin to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. UNITE HERE, one of our members, is on the frontlines of this fight, organizing the parents, teachers, community and of course the lunch ladies whose very livelihoods hang in the balance. In 2012, the union was able to win a contract requiring the school district to not open any more schools with re-heating only kitchens.

Meanwhile, people in Los Angeles are travelling down a different road, as more schools are adopting “buy local food” policies. The L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) has taken this beyond local, and adopted the Good Food Purchasing Pledge (GFPP) created by the L.A. Food Policy Council. The GFPP includes standards to support the local economy, environmental sustainability, fair labor standards, animal welfare, and nutrition. The FCWA was at the table along with many other organizations concerned about these issues. That made all the difference in developing this comprehensive policy and gaining its adoption by LAUSD and the City of Los Angeles.

Both of these trends – toward corporate power, bad food, and unjust working conditions on the one hand, and toward a good, clean, and fair food system on the other – are happening simultaneously, and both have power and momentum. Our job in the next decade will be to work together towards making a food system that nourishes our minds and bodies and that does not destroy the earth and workers in the process. We must all walk together – consumers, producers, workers, and students – towards this vision.

For more information, go to www.foodchainworkers.org, www.realfoodrealjobs.org, www.goodfoodla.org.