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The faces of the new food revolution

Originally published by Al Jazeera on 11/23/2015

On a drizzly April day in Washington, D.C., 60 food workers and labor organizers from across the country gathered in an office building downtown. There was an African immigrant street vendor from New York City; a black apple picker from upstate New York; a white, 20-something former bartender from Cincinnati. There were Latino farmworkers from California’s Central Valley; Walmart workers from Oakland; a food-processing worker from Brooklyn. The diversity of the workers gathered for the fifth annual summit of the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) reflected the diversity of food workers nationwide.

The “food movement” is complex and often misunderstood. Read snarky Slate articles and you might be led to believe the movement is a white, elitist phenomenon whose poster child is a Lululemon-wearing, latte-sipping Whole Foods shopper and whose de facto guru is Michael Pollan. In other words: out of touch with working Americans.

But the people on the frontlines of the struggle to make healthy, sustainable, local food accessible to all Americans defy this stereotype. At its heart, the movement includes the workers who harvest the peppers, raise the chickens, process the pork, bus the dishes, take the orders, check out the groceries, truck the wares and more.

These food workers now have a unified voice through the growing FCWA. Started in 2009 by nine organizations to unite workers across the food sector, the FCWA has since expanded to 25 member groups, representing over 300,000 workers. “What is exciting is seeing all these groups come together to fight for a shared vision,” says Diana Robinson, the FCWA’s campaign and education coordinator.

The FCWA is based on the principle that a farmworker picking apples and a clerk stocking shelves at Walmart share many of the same struggles. The 20 million workers in the U.S. food sector are disproportionately poor. Food workers use food stamps at a rate more than 50 percent higher than the average American worker, according to FCWA research, and food workers suffer food insecurity at almost twice the national rate. Workers in this sector, encompassing production, processing, distribution, retail and food service, not only face low wages, but also hardships such as a lack of paid sick days. “In our national survey of food workers,” says FCWA Co-Director Joann Lo, “we found a full four out of five workers who harvest, process, distribute, sell or cook our food don’t have paid sick days or don’t know if they do, which most likely means they don’t.”

Building up the power of these workers is what inspired the founders of FCWA. The food industry has long understood the benefits of vertical integration — the wonky term for owning enterprises up and down the supply chain. In the chicken business, for example, vertical integration means control over not just the raising of chickens, but also the production of their feed and the processing needed to get them to market.