Building the Movement: Labor in the Northeast Food System

Equity, Food Justice, NESAWG Publication, Worker Justice, Workforce


Elizabeth Henderson, Jack Bradigan Spula


Americans can’t avoid the fact that we live in a car culture. Besides hundreds of millions of vehicles on our highways, there are the 1.1 million employed directly as automakers, plus about the same number working at auto dealerships---plus the vast numbers of parts-supplier employees, mechanics, service-station workers, and many more. We recognize the vital importance of these workers to support our car-dependent way of life.  But above all, we Americans, like all human beings, live in food cultures. Ultimately, our daily bread is more important than our wheels. Yet, we are largely oblivious of the workforce that provides us our food.

And sure enough, the numbers reflect the reality of our dependence on these workers. We have more than 7.6 million people employed in food and beverage service and related jobs, for example. And just the 1.4 million farm workers tending and harvesting our crops easily outnumber those working in auto plants. Yet many - perhaps most - of these food sector workers remain largely invisible to the American consumer. That’s partly because they’re workers who often toil far from our metro areas, “hidden in plain sight” out in the fields, rendered anonymous and "interchangeable" in slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities, or stuck in dead-end and high-pressure jobs behind the scenes in restaurants, hotels, and cafeterias.

These workers are the backbone of any food system. If, as a movement, we are pursuing the ideal of a just and sustainable food system, it’s inevitable and morally necessary to keep the full range of food system workers front and center in our efforts. For without a legal, adequately skilled, decently compensated and fairly treated labor force, we cannot achieve food justice and sustainability on any level.

Our goal is to “re-regionalize” our food system such that, as Kathy Ruhf and Kate Clancy put it in their working paper, Exploring a Regional Food Systems Approach, “as much good food as possible to meet the population’s food Needs is produced, processed, distributed and multiple levels and scales within a region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to all stakeholders in the region.”

Our goal is a regional food system with thriving farms, and prosperous food businesses and services that are regionally based and controlled, and largely supplied with food grown within the region. Our theory of change for food system transformation in our region addresses beneficiaries, strategies and outcomes. We assume that all stakeholders must benefit; our vision cannot stop short of a system in which economic and social rewards are distributed equitably all along the food chain, where no sector or individual is treated unfairly.

We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and develop strategies that will move towards long-term systems change in which the outcomes include justice and fairness for all. Engaging, mobilizing and transforming the food system labor force is critical to this goal.