The food industry comprises the largest labor force in the United State, but across the system, its workers are among the most exploited in the county. This article—originally published by Hudson River Flows, a storytelling collaborative writing a new narrative in support of regenerative economic redevelopment of the bioregion—explores why that is, and who is addressing the issue in the Hudson Valley.
The Origins of Farm Labor Injustice
If you were to follow an apple from the farm worker who harvested it in the Hudson Valley all the way down to the dishwasher scraping apple crisp leftovers off a plate in a restaurant kitchen 100 miles south in New York City, the path you’d trace would be defined by long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions.
There are many reasons why the US food industry relies on exploited workers—and when it comes to farm workers specifically, exploitation is a tradition that goes back all the way to the country’s origins. “If you talk about the labor injustices in the Hudson Valley or the food system in general, part of it is from the historic situation that we’re in,” says farmer, activist, and writer Elizabeth Henderson. “The greater part of the food system is based in the system of slavery, where there were massive plantations worked by people who were enslaved and had no choice.”
When slavery ended, tenant farming and sharecropping took its place—both characterized by continued labor exploitation. Within this historical context it’s not surprising that farmworkers were ultimately excluded from the protections provided by labor laws like the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act. “The workers in other sectors [gained] the right to organize, to bargain collectively, but farmworkers have not had that right,” Henderson explains. Farmworkers were also left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which created the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay.
Government subsidies that keep food prices artificially low are another factor contributing to the low wages throughout the food system. “The US has the lowest food prices of any industrialized country,” Margaret Gray, author of Labor and the Locavore, explains. “We can consider government policies that try to keep food inexpensive…[and] we also know that in the 21st century, we’ve seen the dominance of a handful of major supermarket chains who become the price setters for food.” These subsidies, which are given disproportionately to white farmers, along with industry consolidation, are the root causes of the labor injustices that permeate the food system, according to Gray. It’s these low food prices that put even the well-intentioned farm owners in a position where they may feel they have little choice but to rely on the continued exploitation of their labor force in order to stay in business.
Bringing Worker Justice to the Local Food Movement
It is within this complex system of challenges that a broad movement is taking shape, both nationally and in the Hudson Valley, that aims to insert a labor justice component into a food ethics conversation that has traditionally focused more on environmental criteria: things like pesticide use, sustainable farming practices, and the importance of locally sourced ingredients. Not until relatively recently has this cultural awareness begun to include a conversation about the workers that harvest the kale, pack the strawberries, butcher the pig, serve the salad, or wash the dishes.
And even now, that awareness is still quite limited. According to Gray, if the food system in the United States is going to be transformed into one that values labor, a lot of work still needs to be done around educating consumers. “In order to create a holistic food ethic, we need to rely on consumers—they would need to be educated about the situation of farmworkers, and they would need to have a shift in their thinking about what sustainability and food ethics mean.
“The media doesn’t cover farmworker issues very well, and that makes it difficult for consumers to become educated,” Gray adds. “It’s not a story that has an easy reference point for most Americans, and so it involves a lot of unpacking to get the story across of farmworker lives and challenges. For consumers to be educated, the media has to do a better job at explaining workers’ situations, and consumers would have to be open to longer form pieces, documentaries like Food Chains or The Harvest, going to talks, and websites of farmworker organizations, including Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit. An obvious place for education would be at farmers markets, but when those are run by farmers themselves, that’s an obstacle to having handouts at information booths.”
Of course, it’s important to note that decades of systemic racism and skyrocketing economic inequality have led to a system of food apartheid (Ray Figueroa, president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, notes the system has created not “food desserts” but “food swamps” in low-income communities), leaving many unable to access ethically produced food—even if they wanted to. So despite being an important piece of a much larger puzzle, the constraints put on consumers by economic and social inequality make it so that simply educating the consumer is not enough.
Food Workers Organize for Justice and Change
“In order to address the challenges that the whole range of the food system faces—from food workers to farmers to consumers—we have to address it as a system,” says Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “We can’t address it piecemeal. So while educating consumers is key, if the people who are working in the food system themselves don’t develop power, then we are just treading water. This is why we feel it’s so important to educate and organize workers.”
The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is a national nonprofit that organizes farmworkers and frontline food workers. They work with a broad coalition of member organizations to engage in workplace campaigns and food policy initiatives at the state and local levels. These initiatives include Justice in the Food Chain skills trainings that are designed to help individuals organize their workplaces in order to improve working conditions. The organization also plays a key role in supporting a variety of policy proposals, including the Good Food Purchasing Program, a policy initiative that aims to improve food policy by leveraging the purchasing power of large institutions and municipal agencies.
“The idea is that we identify large institutions like public school systems or cities that buy major amounts of food, and the policy requires them to meet at least a baseline for each of five categories,” Oliva explains. Those categories include human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, local economies, and labor.
One city that has adopted the Good Food Purchasing Program is New York City, whose school food procurement budget is second only to that of the US military’s food expenditures.
Of course, since it could potentially be more expensive for city institutions to work with vendors that meet the Good Food Purchasing Program’s criteria, an important issue to consider when examining the potential efficacy of the city’s program is whether or not there will be mechanisms built in to increase the budgets of these institutions. According to Suzanne Adely, FCWA’s mid-Atlantic and New England regional organizer, “in other cities where Good Food Purchasing Programs have been adopted, it has not raised costs.”
And according to Christina Spach, a national organizer at the Food Chain Workers Alliance, there are examples, such as at the Los Angeles School District, that show institutions can improve food quality without increasing costs and even decreasing them, in some cases.
Still, some food products may be more expensive, but “there are many creative strategies that institutions can employ to offset potential cost increases,” says Spach. These include strategies like “shifting towards local producers to reduce travel and storage cost of perishables, or redesigning menus to reduce relatively more expensive meat purchases and redirecting those expenditures to produce or alternative proteins.”
Further, the Center for Good Food Purchasing provides institutions with technical assistance and advises on which strategies may work based on “budget, current purchasing patterns, and short and longterm goals,” says Spach. “The center can also connect institutions to expert partners engaged in value chain innovations for additional technical support.”
If adopted, this policy could be an important step in ensuring labor justice within the broader New York City food ecosystem—particularly for immigrant workers, who tend to experience higher rates of labor law violations.
“A lot of folks who work in the food system work and live in fear of deportation,” Oliva says. In August of 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest single-state workplace raid in US history, which saw 680 poultry workers arrested in Mississippi. These raids evoke a state of fear within immigrant communities and serve to establish a docile workforce comprised of workers who are unlikely to report labor law violations out of fear of employer retaliation.
“With the Good Food Purchasing Program, if there is information that tells us there are violations of international and local labor laws within, for example, a poultry plant, then that would be used as leverage to change the city’s sourcing of chicken,” Adely explains. “[Because] you’re part of a food procurement supply chain that now…says that you need to respect labor laws.”
But the ultimate aim isn’t simply to exclude problematic vendors from contract work with the city—the Good Food Purchasing Program is also designed as a mechanism to open the doors to potential vendors who are already engaged in sustainable agriculture and fair labor practices. “The policy is also the leverage to support the companies that are already adhering to basic standards,” Adely says. “So that is capacity building, which could look like supporting cooperatives, which could look like trainings. That is the next stage as far as New York State is concerned.”
Breakthrough Legislation: The Fair Labor Standards Act
Another important policy development was the 2019 passage of New York’s Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which gives farmworkers in the state the right to organize and bargain collectively. The law is the result of decades of organizing led by the Rural Migrant Ministry’s Justice for Farmworkers campaign and supported by organizations like Food Chain Workers Alliance.
The legislation is just one piece of a much broader movement that has its sights set on bolstering workplace democracy within the food system. Another approach that has been on the rise is the development of worker-owned cooperatives, businesses that are owned and managed by the employees themselves.
“Cooperative ownership of the food system is a really critical component of ensuring that we’re moving towards a food system that’s not just equitable but that also benefits the most marginalized,” Oliva says. “It could be processing plants, it could be a restaurant, it could be distribution networks that are cooperatively owned by the people who work in those places and the communities that are impacted by those enterprises. That’s the ultimate vision that we have of where we want to take the food system.”
Through its cooperative food systems program, the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) has been actively supporting the establishment of worker cooperatives all over the United States—including in the Hudson Valley.
“I believe that cooperative ownership is one of the key tools to building a more equitable economy,” CDI’s Jonah Fertig-Burd explains. “And when we look at the wealth inequality in our society and the way in which corporations control our economy and our lives and can dominate our food system with corporate consolidation, cooperatives are one tool towards building a new economy that works for people and the planet.”
CDI supports cooperatives in a wide variety of ways, from more basic things like conversations and introductory workshops to much more involved strategies that include working with businesses to develop legal structures, business plans, marketing plans, and access to financing. In the Hudson Valley they have worked with a number of different businesses, including Letterbox Farm, a collectively owned and operated commercial farm in Hudson; Rock Steady Farm, a women- and queer-owned cooperative farm based in Millerton; and Soul Fire Farm, an educational nonprofit farm in Petersburg that is committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.
Despite facing the challenges inherent within the current food system, these farms have been relatively successful in providing higher wages and fair working conditions for their employees. For example, apprentices at Soul Fire start at $15 per hour, assistant growers start at $18 per hour, and the farm manager starts at $21 per hour with a $1 per hour raise each year.
“We also provide a Health Reimbursement Arrangement for health costs and a retirement match,” says Leah Penniman, the founding codirector of Soul Fire Farm. “Farmers get no-cost housing and a CSA share, and full time farmers at Soul Fire Farm work a 40-hour week and receive 15 paid sick or personal days per year.”
It should be noted that Soul Fire Farm is able to provide higher wages in part because they operate a number of different programs for which they receive grant funding.
“The farm income pays for about the first $12 per hour worth of the farmers’ salaries, with the remainder being subsidized through nonprofit income of program fees, grants, and donations,” Penniman says.
Of course, the Soul Fire model is a unique example—not all farms have access to the grant funding and donations that would allow them to provide their workers with such benefits. Letterbox Farm, for example, is not a nonprofit. Consequently, and because it prioritizes year-round employment, Letterbox offers a lower hourly wage than some other farms. However, employees are still paid more than minimum wage and clock an average of 43 hours per week in the summer, which, according to Faith Gilbert at Letterbox Farm, “is lower by almost a third than the industry norm of 60 hours a week.”
By supporting these alternative business structures, organizations like CDI are not just helping many food system workers gain control over their own labor—they are also creating new economic models that exist within the constraints of the current system. “The more that we build these examples, these models, these approaches, the more we make these possibilities real to people. And I think that’s very powerful,” Fertig-Burd says.
Cooperatives are an interesting alternative to traditional business models because they blur the line between employer and employee in a system that is not really working for either. Cheap food prices are one of the major driving factors of low wages in the food system, and this not only impacts the workers, but it also often leaves many farm owners in a difficult position where they cannot afford to pay a living wage to their employees—although they would want to.
“The problem is not the owner of the farm—the problem is the way the price point is set. If [farm owners] want to make a living, they [often] have to exploit farm workers and pay them misery wages,” Oliva says.
That said, it is an underreported reality that in many cases farm owners live with similar income and working conditions as those they employ—sometimes even worse. It is critical to understand the complex dynamic between the many layers of exploitation that exist in a food system that is not working for the vast majority of those within it.
“When a farmer tells you they can’t afford to pay farmworkers a livable wage, they’re not lying to you,” Oliva says. “It means that we have a common enemy, it means that we should band together. It means that the farmworkers and the farmers should all look at the way that subsidies work and the way that these large agribusinesses are literally the cause of their own poverty on both ends—both the farmer owner and the farmworker. So to me, the solution is really about organizing. It’s really about bringing folks together to understand how the food system is structured and what we can do to dismantle the current system and create something that is beneficial to the communities and to the folks who are working in that food system.”
Of course, the development of worker cooperatives on its own is not enough to completely transform the food system in the Hudson Valley. In order to be an effective tool for transformation, organizers like Oliva believe that co-ops need to be one part of a more comprehensive toolkit that focuses on policy, as well. But the significance of cooperatives is that they are tangible, replicable models that embody the broader vision of an equitable food system. When combined with policy-level work, an organized workforce, and informed consumers, cooperatives can serve as a kind of north star—a model that can guide the path towards a more democratic and equitable food system, both in the Hudson Valley and throughout the nation.
Read more from Hudson River Flows: