This Labor Day, a Reminder of Who Works for Our Food (and 4 Orgs Fighting for Them)

updated Sep 5, 2020
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Few years have been quite as unrelenting as 2020. After taking nearly 200,000 American lives, COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. These same populations serve as essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and bear the brunt of long-standing systemic health and social inequities that put them at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Unfurling at the same time as the coronavirus are nationwide uprisings inspired by the Movement for Black Lives, which has led workers of color to speak out against inequity in — well, just about every industry there is. 

There are fewer places where injustice is more glaring than the food system. This complex web that takes food from the field to the fork is built on exploitation, and the conditions faced by the people who grow our nation’s food, harvest it, pack it, process it, and serve it are only getting worse. COVID-19 and extreme weather patterns caused by climate change are “battering the workers who feed America.” 

But there is hope. Powerful organizing is happening nationwide, along with a growing patchwork of grassroots organizations fighting for some of the food system’s most valuable yet vulnerable people, including Black farmers, undocumented farmworkers, and tipped workers. If you care about a just and equitable food system, here are four organizations you should be aware of and support.

The National Black Farmers Association

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the country’s 3.4 million farmers, or about 50,000 farmers nationwide. A hundred years ago, America had more than a million Black farmers. The National Black Farmers Association was formed to help prevent further land loss and secure food sovereignty for Black farmers.

According to the organization, Black farmers have historically experienced discrimination in their dealings with the Department of Agriculture and were denied access to state loans and subsidies provided by the government. Nationally, farm subsidies that were afforded to white farmers were not afforded to Black farmers. Without access to the same government loans, emergency or disaster assistance, and other aid, many Black farmers lost their farms and their homes. For 25 years, the National Black Farmers Association has fought to change these racist conditions. 

Migrant Justice

Without immigrant farmworkers, the United States’ agricultural industry would come to a grinding halt. The Agriculture Department estimates that about half of all crop hands in the United States, more than one million, are undocumented immigrants; however, growers and labor contractors place the percentage closer 75 percent. Despite the crucial role they play in keeping Americans fed, undocumented farm workers are among the poorest workers in the nation and face hazardous working conditions, including regular pesticide exposure and heat-related illnesses. The organization Migrant Justice empowers migrant and seasonal farmworkers to fight for fair wages, occupational safety, and improved living and working conditions. 

Restaurant Opportunities Center United

Even before the COVID-19 crisis laid bare the restaurant industry’s unjust labor practices, many restaurant workers were already “hanging by a thread.” Tipped restaurant workers are paid a “subminimum” wage based on the assumption that tips make up the difference and that employees end up getting paid what amounts to minimum wage. On average, tipped restaurant workers make about $2.13 an hour plus tips — the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. But then COVID-19 came along and two-thirds of restaurant workers became unemployed seemingly overnight, amounting to nearly 6 million jobs.

For almost 20 years, the organization Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United has fought tirelessly for restaurant workers, who are in some of the lowest paid occupations in the nation. This fight continues during the pandemic. Not only has the organization’s pandemic response fund raised over $1 million to provide direct cash assistance to restaurant workers across the country, but ROC United also regularly updates its database of state and national resources for workers during the pandemic and provides health and safety tips in English and Spanish.

Rural Advancement Foundation International 

Few organizations in rural America treat environmental sustainability, economic viability, biodiversity, and social justice as “inextricably linked,” but North Carolina’s Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) does exactly that. The organization fights for justice across a wide swath of issues impacting the food system — from farm sustainability and food access to contract agriculture reform, which is pushing for fair and equitable contract arrangements between individual farmers and large corporations.

This includes a particular focus on poultry contracts, which according to the organization are “predicated on the exploitation of people, land, and animals.” Ninety-seven percent of the chicken produced is raised by family farmers under contract with large companies. In the full-length documentary “Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print,” the organization sheds light on the plight of family farms nationwide and creates a space for these contractors to tell their own stories about signing contracts with unfair challenges and hidden risks that pitted them against other family farmers.

What other organization do you support that defend workers rights in our food system? Let us know in the comments.