November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks to Our Food Workers

Megan Clayton

Megan Clayton

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

thanksgiving-turkey-1910Thanksgiving is upon us! This time of year comes with requirements: taking stock of what you’re thankful for and…well…naps. When asked what really made your year, perhaps you’ll resemble this poll of Americans and say family and health. Seeing the feast on your plate, you’ll add a thankful nod to the favorites: turkey, stuffing, and (maybe) pumpkin pie.

Okay, guys. That sounds pretty good. But as you pass food between hands, you’re forgetting some hands. Actually, 20 million sets of hands. I’m talking about the workers in our food system, which represents the largest and fastest-growing sector in the nation.

It also has some of the worst jobs.

The last person to care for your food earned a median wage of $9.90 per hour. If you ordered from a restaurant– and involved waiters, bussers, or runners – then we drop that minimum wage to $2.13 per hour plus tips. That’s right. Food service workers rely on YOUR tips to make a living. (You left a good tip, right?)  It is unsurprising, then, to learn that most food workers toil under the poverty line. These conditions are unlivable and the consequences extend from workers to the health of 20 million worker families. Or, the very things, each Thanksgiving, we say we cherish most.

Maybe your holiday meals are a bit like mine: an opportunity for friendly discussion (read: fiery debate). So, let’s have this one.

Once everyone sits down to eat, you say: let’s raise the minimum wage! On cue, someone will present the central argument of opponents: an increase in the minimum wage will lead to pricier basic goods and, ultimately, harm low-wage workers…the very group the change is meant to help. Pause. Nod. (This makes you look reasonable.) Then, respond with this: a recent study by the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley and the Food Chain Workers Alliance examined the impact of a raise in minimum wage on food prices. This study did not support your argument, Uncle John (be sure to replace with your opponent’s name; your response is less effective [and confusing] if you get this wrong).

What they found is that while the bill to raise minimum wage (the Fair Minimum Wage Act) would increase the regular worker’s wage by 33 percent, earnings would more than double for food service workers. This result would lead to an increase in retail grocery store food prices, but only by an average of less than half a percent. The big picture? Over the proposed three-year plan to increase minimum wage, food prices would amount to only pennies more per day (10 cents!). But millions would be helped.

So, it bears repeating: Thanksgiving is upon us! The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a national coalition of 21 food worker organizations, is using the holiday to remind us that amidst thanks for family and health, we must turn our attention to the millions of hands who bring us our food. In their honor, FCWA is naming Thanksgiving week (November 24-30) International Food Workers Week, with the goal of educating consumers on how food gets from farm to fork. As we will prove definitively this Thursday: we all eat. As consumers, we have a choice to push for change in our food system, including an opportunity to support a decent living for millions of food workers through the Minimum Wage Act of 2013. Let’s support the kind of health, families, and food that we can all be thankful for.

Got something to say? Write your comments below and keep the conversation going. Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress), ca. 1910

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