One of the great contradictions of the American economy is that the workers who feed us are the workers who struggle the hardest to feed themselves. The corporations that produce and market America’s sustenance are also the monopolies whose low wages have pauperized a workforce of more than 21 million nationwide. And now the American diet is about to get even costlier under an administration that campaigned on cheap taco bowls and Trump-brand steaks.
The “food-supply chain,” which includes production, processing, distribution, retail, and food service, constitutes the largest sector of the labor force, and has expanded by 13 percent since 2010. Yet food-chain workers are also the country’s poorest, typically earning just $10 an hour ($16,000 annually, less than half the median annual earnings of workers in all industries). And they’re getting hungrier, according to an analysis of food-industry jobs by Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a nationwide advocacy coalition: “Food insecurity in households supported by a food chain worker rose to 4.6 million during the Great Recession.” So those in the food labor force earn starvation wages to supply food they can’t afford to eat.
Their pay scales are dictated by a race-and-gender pecking order, with white men on top. The black-white wage gap among male food-supply workers is 60 cents to the dollar. White women earn about 50 cents per dollar earned by a white man, and black, Latina, and Native women workers earn 45, 42, and 36 cents, respectively. Women in the food chain are often providers of the unwaged labor of procuring and preparing food at home; that means a mom who works for tips as a restaurant server goes home to the double indignity of going hungry so her kids can have a full dinner instead.
Job segregation enforces these trends. Most food-production and agricultural-industry CEOs are white men, while women and people of color fill the ranks of the frontline workers who cook, serve, and process food. Promotion opportunities are scarce in the lower-wage tiers, in part because of the exploitation of temporary and part-time labor (half the food-prep and -service workforce worked part-time in 2014, for instance). Low unionization rates exacerbate wage inequality and discrimination, while curtailing workers’ ability to negotiate fair pay. Structural economic shifts linked to transnational trade, labor migration, and automation have made food-chain jobs more precarious on a global level.