Racial Injustice in Food Production: Is the Income Gap an Accident?


Image: La Nueva Salamanca

If you're in the market for tortillas, buying from a local factory might sound like the most responsible choice, right? What if you knew that a worker (a 22-year-old new father) there had been killed by a dough-mixing machine, potentially because of unsafe factory-wide practices?

Unless we're buying directly from a local farmer, we don't know any more about who produces our food a few miles away or in the next state over than we do about food produced overseas. A new report, The Color of Food [PDF], by the publishers of Color Lines magazine sheds some light on the state of affairs in America's food factories and agricultural fields. White workers in the food industry earn a median of $25,024 a year, for example, while workers of color earn $19,349. Being a woman is also an apparent disadvantage: white women earn less than men of color—63 cents for every dollar a white man makes—and women of color even less than that.

The disparity in income is well-illustrated in the graph above; note the greater income gap specifically in the processing and distribution of food—the disparity in the distribution sector, for example, is $14, 782.

From the report itself:

The median wage across the food chain is $21,692 or $11.05 an hour. That is well below the selfsufficiency standards, a measure of how much income is needed for a family in a given location to meet its basic needs. Twelve percent of food workers live at the poverty threshold (defined by the federal government in 2008 as $10,400 for a household of one or $21,200 for a family of four).

A recent story in Color Lines highlights the major findings in the report, including that few people of color hold management positions in the food industry. The third main finding, described in Color Lines:

People of color are concentrated in low-wage jobs in the food chain. According to the 2008 Census, people of color make up 34.6 percent of the population (that percentage is expected to rise as 2010 Census data becomes available). But workers of color are represented at a level almost one and a half times that in sectors of the food chain. For instance, 50 percent of food production workers are people of color. This includes farm workers, 65 percent of whom are Latino.

Moving forward
What does the report suggest should be done about this? Broadly, three main things: to establish "a functioning, sane and humane immigration system that respects the human dignity of workers;" increase funding for research to improve working conditions and career mobility in the food industry; and increase the opportunities available to food workers "to take leadership in defining what is good for them and their families."

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Tags: Environmental Justice | Fair Trade | Food Safety