Thanksgiving is a time of year when most people spend time giving thanks for their family and their friends, for having a job (if they are lucky to have one), and for many other things in their lives. I am hoping that this year, you also give thanks to the hands that feed us.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance is launching the first annual International Food Workers Week November 18-24 during this Thanksgiving week to bring more awareness to the hands that feed us—from the Native Americans and African slaves of not so long ago, to the Asian and Latino immigrant farmworkers from the middle of the last century, and especially the almost 20 million people in the U.S. from all races, ethnicities, and genders who today ensure that the food gets from the farm to our plates.
Yes, you are reading that right. Almost 20 million people work in the food system in the U.S. That makes the food system the largest private sector employer in the country. Far too often, many of these workers are earning poverty wages, working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and facing discrimination and a lack of opportunities to advance to living wage jobs.
But there are some good jobs in the food system, which we should celebrate too! Like, at Swanton Berry Farm outside Santa Cruz—the workers are represented by the United Farm Workers and also can participate in an employee stock ownership program. Now Swanton Berry Farm is going through a process to be Food Justice-Certified by the Agricultural Justice Project, which has social justice standards for farms and food businesses in terms of how workers are treated as well as for the farms and food businesses’ relationships with buyers up the supply chain. You’ll also find good jobs in unionized grocery stores and food service institutions—for example, in May of this year, the members of UNITE HERE Local 1 who work in the cafeterias in Chicago Public Schools won a new contract that not only improves wages and protects health care and job security, it also begins to change the food model in Chicago’s schools by halting any expansion of schools that only reheat frozen food.
We need more of these good jobs. And with your support, workers can organize to win more good jobs. Thanks to a suggestion from an ally at the Presbyterian Hunger Program, we put together a “menu”, in English and in Spanish, for International Food Workers Week that gives you ideas of how learn, reflect, and take action. The Appetizers in the menu list a number of short videos that you can watch to learn more about food workers. The Main Course provides suggested questions for reflection and discussion. And the Dessert section gives you numerous options of actions to take online or in person. Go to the Food Chain Workers Alliance website to see the full list of Dessert actions and to find a list of local events around the country.
Joann Lo is executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of unions, workers centers, and workers’ rights advocacy organizations joined together to improve wages and working conditions and to work towards a more sustainable food system.