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November 27, 2013

Supporting International Food Workers Week for Thanksgiving

Food chain workers weekInternational Food Workers Week: What Does the Minimum Wage Have to Do With Sustainable Food?

A holiday in which we give thanks over a shared meal is a good time to think about where our food comes from. Many of us are aware of the effect that that our globalized food production system has on climate disruption and environmental degradation, whether it is carbon pollution from transportation across global supply chains, methane emissions from the livestock industry, or pesticides, preservatives, and genetic modifications to our food.  

Increasing transparency about where our food comes from allows healthy, sustainable choices for some of us. However, we hear little about the workers who prepare and grow our food every day, or about communities that do not have access to healthy, fair, and affordable food. As environmentally conscious consumers, many of us are not informed about the important connections between the food we eat and workplace and environmental justice.

With over 20 million workers, the food system is the largest and fastest-growing sector in the nation. Unfortunately, with a national median wage of $9.90 per hour, the vast majority of food workers toil under the poverty line. The low minimum wage especially affects food service workers who rely on tips to make a living (waiters, bussers, runners) -- their federal minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour. When totaled up, that amounts to just $4,430 per year for a full-time worker.

Ironically, America's food workers, because of their low wages, often live in low-income communities where they don't have access to healthy and affordable food. These so-called "food deserts" tend to be the same communities that are also "job deserts" due to the lack sufficient living-wage employment, and "environmental deserts" because they suffer the most from pollution caused by nearby fossil fuel power plants, incinerators, and toxic dumping. Concentrated poverty is closely associated with severe and mutually reinforcing environmental, social, and economic distress.

Increasing the minimum wage would put money in the pockets of people who need it most, reduce people's need to rely on food stamps, increase the demand for healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, and increase people’s economic leverage to fight for healthier communities. In short, supporting good jobs and fair wages helps build strong and healthy communities. Good jobs with better wages can empower workers to engage in civic activities that hold governments and corporations accountable and promote healthy communities. Yet some still argue against increasing the minimum wage.

A study done by the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance looked at the impact of the minimum wage on the price of food. The study found that while the bill to raise the minimum wage, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, would provide a 33 percent wage increase for the regular worker, earnings would more than double for food service workers. As a result of these increases in wages, retail grocery store food prices would increase by only an average of less than half a percent. So what does this mean? Over the proposed three-year plan to increase the minimum wage, food prices both away and at home, would amount to only about 10 cents more per day.

America's food workers are the largest segment of the working population that desperately needs an increase in the minimum wage to support their families. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of 21 food worker organizations, is bringing awareness to this issue with International Food Workers Week during this Thanksgiving week in order to educate consumers on how food gets from farms to our forks.

During International Food Workers Week, advocates are pressuring Congress to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to make sure that all workers have access to healthy food, including the 20 million workers in the food system. As environmentally conscious consumers, we have choice and a voice to push for a change, not only in what food we put in our bodies, but what food we buy and therefore what systems and companies we support. The more people make a decent living, the more they can enjoy the healthy choice and experience of good food in healthy communities.

-- Dean Hubbard, Director of the Sierra Club's Labor Program


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