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Mapping Race, Gender, and Class in the Food Supply Chain

A new report details a shocking litany of injustices across the food chain, from pesticide poisonings to enormous wage gaps—and a silver lining.

On Wednesday, my colleague Cord posted the findings of a new report called "Behind the Kitchen Door," which detailed inequalities and abuses in the restaurant industry, including the fact that white restaurant workers make $4 an hour more than their minority counterparts.

As it turns out, these kinds of injustices and poor working conditions are common across the food system. In a report published this week called "The Color of Food," the Applied Research Center mapped the race, gender, and class of workers from food production and processing through distribution and retail or service.

Their findings make for depressing and occasionally shocking reading. ARC found that white food workers earned significantly more than their counterparts all along the food system, with the largest wage gaps "occurring in the food processing and distribution centers":

Half of white food workers earn $25,024 a year, while workers of color make $5,675 less than that. For every dollar a white male worker earns, women of color earn almost half of that.


Of course, that gap is in part the logical result of the fact that few people of color hold management positions in the food system. ARC found that "across the entire food system, three out of every four managers were white," while "people of color are employed in low-wage sectors at higher rates than their numbers in the general population."

According to the 2008 American Community Survey, 34.6 percent of the general population are people of color. However, they made up 50 percent of food production workers and 45 percent of the food processing sector.


In addition to mapping divisions along race and gender lines, the report paints an alarming picture of working conditions in the food system in general. In the United States, roughly 14 percent of the civilian workforce, or more than 20 million people, are employed somewhere along the food chain (although only 11 million of those are full-time), and yet, according to ARC's report, the median wage across the food chain is $21,692, or $11.05 an hour, "well below the self- sufficiency standards, a measure of how much income is needed for a family in a given location to meet its basic needs."

Agricultural workers experience particularly toxic combination of hazardous conditions, low pay, and non-existent labor protections. The report notes that farmworkers have "a higher rate of toxic chemical injuries than workers in any other sector of the United States economy," with an estimated 300,000 incidents of pesticide poisoning annually. Meanwhile, 6 out of every 10 farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, and nearly half of all agricultural workers surveyed in California are on food stamps.

It's hard to find a silver lining in a report like this, but it does highlight an important opportunity. Earlier this week, Time's Bryan Walsh wrote that the food movement has already eclipsed the environment movement, but also offers the opportunity to achieve many of its original goals. It's fair to say that the labor movement, at least in the United States, is even more moribund than its green counterpart. And, certainly, middle-class foodies demanding locally grown tomatoes might not seem like the natural advocates for immigration reform and unionization. But what this report shows is that food system reform offers the potential to achieve enormous improvements in worker's rights, too.

People who care about food have the opportunity and the responsibility to build a much broader-based coalition—one that includes the environment, hunger, and labor movements—so that together we can achieve real change. At GOOD Food HQ, we'll be making sure to highlight people who are doing just that, as well as ways that you can join in.

All charts from "The Color of Food" by the Applied Research Center, available for download as a PDF here.

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