A Seat at the Table

One out of every seven American workers is employed in the food industry. Many can’t afford to eat the food they grow and serve.

March 11, 2017

FeaturesIssue 23: March/April 2017

The winter sky is dotted with clouds, and the temperature has dropped so suddenly that it feels like it could snow. Kathy Ortega, 52, leans against the truck parked in her South Tucson driveway. “I didn’t think it would be so cold today,” she says, rubbing her palms together and peering up at the sky.

It is Jan. 2, one day after 22 states raised their minimum wage, including Arizona. Ortega, a manager in training at McDonald’s, campaigned for Proposition 206, which was approved in November by nearly 60 percent of Arizona voters. Beginning on Jan. 1, minimum wage workers received a pay increase from $8.05 to $10 per hour, as well as the addition of paid sick days.

“I striked, I talked, I got everybody to go vote,” Ortega says. And when she went into work yesterday, she says she could see the emotion on the faces of her coworkers. “They were excited to work there again. We all said, ‘We did it.’

A decade ago, Ortega’s husband, a construction worker, began experiencing debilitating arthritis in his back and was forced to stop working. Ortega became the primary income earner for her family, despite experiencing health problems of her own. The family began relying on the state Medicaid program (the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS) and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

When Ortega was hired at McDonald’s two years ago, she lived in a two-bedroom house with her husband, two of her daughters, and three grandchildren. Without a vehicle of her own, she could work only shifts that correlated with the bus schedule. But when she was promoted to manager in training, she and her husband were able to move across the street into their own house. They purchased a used truck so Ortega could pick up shifts at night or early in the morning.

Still, she says the future is unsure. She taps the side of the truck with her knuckles and says, “This truck is a luxury for me this year. I can’t say if it will be here next year.”

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) reports that one out of every seven U.S. workers is employed in the food industry. This amounts to a total of 21.5 million workers—14 percent of the nation’s workforce—ushering our food from field to table through five distinct sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail, and service. But despite a 13 percent increase in food-chain workers since 2010, as well as the undisputed necessity of food, worker wages are lower than in almost all other industries. And the FCWA reports that 2.8 million food workers relied on SNAP in 2016, 2.2 times more than workers in other industries.

Zaira Livier, the southern Arizona director for Proposition 206, says minimum wage increases are essential for the survival of service industry employees. As an adult, Livier spent a decade working for tips as a server and a bartender. As a child, her mother waited tables. “We did need help. We picked up boxes of food, because we didn’t have it.” She pauses. The food industry, she says, “is a volatile market. Restaurants pop up and go away again. Wages are very low. Benefits are nonexistent.”

Food-chain worker wages are lower than in almost all other industries.

Since 2010, injury and illness among food workers at work has risen, including repetitive stress injuries and behavioral health crises. Ortega experiences asthma and has periodically ended up in the emergency room. The asthma is exacerbated by stress, and her job at McDonald’s is stressful. Ortega says her team has three minutes from the time a customer orders until the food needs to come out. As a manager in training, Ortega assumes the brunt of that responsibility. Everything is tracked and timed, from food waste to burger assembly speed.

“There are times I’ve broke out crying at work because I’m so stressed about being timed,” she says. “If you knew what we went through, I don’t think anyone would say we don’t deserve minimum wage to go higher.

Minimum wage campaigns have gained momentum nationwide, championed by food worker organizations, including Fight for 15, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, Service Employees International Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers. In Arizona, Proposition 206, also known as the Fair Wages and Healthy Families Initiative, created a state-mandated stepping stone path for minimum wage increases over the next four years: $10.50 in 2018, $11 in 2019, and $12 in 2020. Starting in 2021, Arizona’s minimum wage will increase in correlation with the cost of living.

In an analysis of Proposition 206, The Grand Canyon Institute (GCI), a nonpartisan research center, estimated that 790,000 workers—30 percent of Arizona’s workforce—would experience increased wages if the measure passed. They found that “two-thirds of beneficiaries would be older than 24 years old and most would be women. Forty percent of working single mothers would likely benefit.”

In Pima County, 15.4 percent of residents are food insecure, a measurement defined by Feeding America as referring to residents “who lack access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”

“Food insecurity could mean a family is going hungry, or it could mean they are having to make difficult decisions between, say, whether to make a payment on a loan or refill a prescription,” says Nick Henry, the director of the Community Food Resource Center of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. “Or it could mean making tradeoffs in nutritional quality and buying the cheapest food possible.”

Ortega says that her family members who have never needed assistance before are now on food stamps. “I rarely meet anyone now who isn’t on food stamps,” she says, “And all of my coworkers at McDonald’s. Without a doubt, everybody working at that store is on food stamps.”

In 2016, McDonald’s reported a net income of $4.69 billion. In a press release, McDonald’s president and CEO Steve Easterbrook said, “For McDonald’s, 2016 was a year of purposeful change as we focused on the key elements of our turnaround plan—strengthening our business to drive long-term sustainable growth by sharpening our focus on our customers, right-sizing our structure and putting the right talent in place to lead the company into the future.” But this growth is misguided and inflated, based entirely around the concept of cheap food. And while the corporation profits, it is at the expense of its workers—many of whom, like Ortega and her coworkers, rely on taxpayer-supported subsidized health care and nutrition assistance just to get by.
Ortega says there are still unknowns, even with the passing of Proposition 206. As a manager in training, she has been making $9.50 per hour, but she isn’t sure if that will go up to $10, or if she’ll be making the equivalent of her old wage compared to the new minimum wage. “Even making $10 an hour, you’re still just a step from the bottom,” she says. She hears her coworkers asking similar questions, and she doesn’t have the answers. Will they still qualify for food stamps? Health insurance?

“We don’t have a good system for supporting people who are trying to move out of poverty,” says Henry. “Working hard to get that raise may just mean they’ll lose their benefits and end up worse off.”

Workers in the food chain also include the people who grow our food, who are often not able to sell their products above the cost of production. Farmers are shrouded in all kinds of dualities—the birth and death of livestock; drought and monsoon; the vibrancy and the physical pain from a life spent doing and making. But the greatest irony may be this: When I farmed, I made far less than minimum wage. I could not afford to purchase health care, despite the physical risk of my occupation. And while I spent each day surrounded by food—touching it, growing it, making it sing for our customers—I did not earn enough to buy that same food for my own family.

We made do. We pickled and preserved, ate the beetle-scabbed zucchini, the winter squash gnawed on by rodents, the produce no one would buy. We traded vegetables for more seeds to plant, bread, cheese, or bones for our working dogs. And I spent hours in the lobby of the Department of Economic Security (DES) office trying to apply for assistance, rocking my wailing or sleeping or suckling baby, waiting for my name to be called, only to be erased by a case number. Once, a woman caught my eye as we waited together. “Might as well be cattle,” she said. I nodded and stared at the floor.

The paperwork felt endless. Often a caseworker would tell me to come back with an entirely different set of documents, and I would leave the office through a stinging wall of frustrated, humiliated tears.

“Even making $10 an hour, you’re still just a step from the bottom.”

Joel Greeno, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and the president of Family Farm Defenders, has lived a similar irony. In 2008, he signed up for state-subsidized healthcare in order to cover the cost of a surgery for his daughter. Upon enrollment, he found that his family also qualified for nutrition assistance.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” says Greeno. “You have a farm, and you’re producing food, and then you end up needing assistance just to have food …” He trails off.

In the winter of 2012, three masses were discovered in Greeno’s abdomen. He had surgery to remove a foot of his large intestine and was forced to pay someone to take care of the farm during his recovery. The bills and the debt piled up. The family sat at the kitchen table, weighing the decision: take out another loan to keep them afloat, or sell the cows? It was the end of October in 2013 when the family’s herd of dairy cows were loaded onto trucks and driven to auction. Greeno’s daughters perched on a pallet watching, tears streaming down their cheeks. “We just kneeled in the road as the trucks pulled away with our life on board,” remembers Greeno.

Opponents of wage increases have been staunchly vocal, stating a lack of correlation between the increase in minimum wage and a reduction in poverty, as well as the negative impact on businesses, who maintain they cannot afford the increase in labor costs. In Arizona, two lawsuits were filed against Proposition 206 by plaintiffs including the Arizona Restaurant Association, Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Both lawsuits were thrown out.

“In the end, if your business plan can only be successful by paying starvation wages to your employees, then you should reconsider your business plan,” says Livier.

The agricultural industry has been particularly vocal against minimum wage increases. In a statement of opposition to Proposition 206, Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, claimed that a raise in the state minimum wage “will hurt Arizona’s farmers and the rural communities dependent on these family businesses. Labor is the single largest line item in a farmer’s budget … The truth is, many family farmers, still recovering from the recession, will not be able to absorb the added financial and regulatory burdens.”

As a former farmer, I can understand this perspective, having faced the difficult and real cost of hired labor. But I also think it unnecessarily pits farmers against farmworkers, and ignores the real problem: decades of devastating agricultural policies that have crippled our nation’s family farmers.

A minimum wage is a basic type of price floor—the lowest legal amount that can be paid for one hour of human labor. And until the 1970s, the United States had agricultural price floors, originally created to lift farmers out of the Great Depression. These price floors functioned as legal mechanisms to guarantee farmers a fair price for their commodity crops, essentially functioning as a minimum wage for farmers. But the 1970s and ‘80s saw the government dismantling these agricultural price floors. After they were eliminated, farm prices collapsed, and federal subsidies were needed to bail out farmers swimming in debt, no longer able to sell their products above the cost of production. Meanwhile, food corporations saved billions of dollars purchasing crops at rock bottom prices, and the market was flooded with cheap food.

“Cheap food is an illusion,” writes author Michael Pollan. “The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies.” Today, those subsidies range from commodity programs for farmers to supplemental nutrition programs for minimum wage workers who can’t afford to buy that food. Not only is this cheap food funded by taxpayer dollars, but it is also directly subsidized by the health and well-being of the human beings working in the food industry.

“What a farmer earns has to be adjusted for inflation,” says Greeno, who advocates through the National Family Farm Coalition for a return to price floors. With price floors, “farmers would be getting $50 per 100 pounds for milk, instead of $17. Corn producers would be getting $10 a bushel instead of $2.95 or $3. Soybeans would be more like $20 a bushel instead of $8.95. And the same thing for beef or poultry.”

These numbers tell of a stark disparity, exposing a web of unjust price calculations and corporate influence, a burden placed on the backs of food workers and farmers industry-wide. Greeno says, “It’s incredibly frustrating when you see all the wealth that is out there, and all the wealth that is possible, and the lack of distribution of that wealth.”

In a statement supporting an increase in minimum wage for the state of New York, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York echoes this: “There is plenty of money in the U.S. food system,” they write, listing 2015 public financial postings from major food industry giants: net sales of $5.3 billion for General Mills for the first half of the year, and quarterly revenues of $2.2 billion for Campbell Soup, $2.7 billion for ConAgra Foods, and $978 million for Mead Johnson Nutrition Company.

While I spent each day surrounded by food— touching it, growing it, making it sing for our customers—I did not earn enough to buy that same food for my own family.

If we want a truly just food system, one that honors each human life along the way, Greeno says, we will have to pay more for food. A financial analysis of Proposition 206 estimated that prices for most items would increase by 0.5 percent to 1.6 percent, while prices for restaurant items could potentially increase up to 6 percent.

“If a farmer has enough money to buy everything he needs, that will create jobs,” he says. “And then workers will be able to earn enough money to go out and buy goods at proper prices—not rock bottom prices.” He pauses. “But this is part of how we struggle—I mean, how do you get people to understand the benefit of higher prices?”

It is possible to advocate for fair wages for workers and fair prices for farm products. If we want a food system that produces not only good food but also a good life for the people who steward that food, we must increase the minimum wage for our food workers, and we must fight for agricultural policies that ensure farmers are paid fairly for their products.

“Solidarity among food workers is key,” says Greeno. “Everyone needs to be justly paid for what they do. It means going to the bottom and making it work for everyone.” With 14 percent of the workforce employed in the food system, that solidarity could drive changes in issues ranging from farm policy to food security.

Ortega says, “My job is a job, just like everybody else has. I want to be respected. I want to be paid for what I do.” Ultimately, she says she’s fighting for her children to have a better life than she has had. “When I die, I am hoping my children have something. A house, a job. I don’t want to die worrying that they’re not taken care of.” It’s the very same thing Greeno is fighting for.

Ortega says her career working in the United States food industry has been an uphill slog—long and sometimes painful hours at physically and emotionally demanding jobs, related health issues, and the frustration of wading through government assistance programs. But Ortega says she has felt inspired by the passing of Proposition 206, and she intends to work toward the creation of a union in her workplace. “I had my doubts,” she admits. “But if you get enough people together, and enough people are talking about an issue, you can get it on the ballot and you can actually vote for it. And you can win.”

Still, she remains a food insecure food worker, relying on nutrition assistance for enough to eat. “Sometimes I just want to give up,” she admits. “They make you feel like you don’t deserve it. They make you feel like you’re tiny. Like, why do you need food stamps?” She shakes her head and scoffs. “To eat.✜

Food Chain Workers Alliance. FoodChainWorkers.org.

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and a cofounder of the Farm Education Resource Network (FERN). She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, as well as the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council.

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