Why is the minimum wage issue important for food justice advocates?
Photo Credit: Restaurant Opportunities Center
By Leah Scrivener
The fight for an increased minimum wage is a food justice issue because poverty is the root cause of hunger and food insecurity. Food workers have the lowest wages and highest levels of job insecurity of this country’s workforce. It is a dark irony that the people who are responsible for feeding us—the millions of men and women who work in the food industry from farm to fork — are the most food insecure group in the United States, participating in food stamps at 1.5 times the rate of other workers.
The food industry is the largest and fastest growing employer of minimum wage workers, and currently employs 7 out of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the United States. The top three low-wage employers in the country are Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC), and McDonald’s—all food industry giants, and all politically powerful corporations with a vested interest in keeping the minimum wage low. Their cheap food comes at a high cost to workers.
Challenging big food means “raising the bar and leveling the playing field” so that local, equitable and sustainable alternatives have a chance to compete against the industrial food monopolies. Communities need to “raise the bar” on big food, demanding living wages, healthy, affordable food, and community benefits. They also need to “level the playing field,” because many large retailers enjoy special incentives like tax breaks, free land, and infrastructure assistance in order to establish themselves in a community. Further, they supplement those unsustainable jobs with publicly-funded assistance like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and public housing.When Wal-Mart comes to town, these costs can mount to well over $1 million per store. If big retail can get a break, so should local food enterprises.
As long as monopolies are allowed to fatten their pockets at the expense of workers, farmers and communities, they will have an unfair advantage over locally-based production, processing and local retail. Urban gardens, small-scale vegetable farms, CSAs and corner groceries will never be able to compete with the low food prices offered by big food—prices subsidized by public assistance and low wages. If we want food dollars to stay in our communities—where they can contribute to local economic growth—then we need to make big retail pay their workers a livable wage.
At the local level, we have seen many examples of communities successfully taking up the minimum wage fight. This past November, local governments in New Mexico and California passed minimum wage ballots in three different counties. These encouraging successes show the potential of local governments’ ability to “take matters in their own hands” when the federal government fails to take the lead.
It is hard to imagine how to transform our unsustainable and inequitable food system without the power of organized working people—the same hardworking people who make up the backbone of the food justice movement. The fight for a minimum wage is everyone’s fight. It is a fight for food justice and a fair food system for all.