Can the Foodie Trend Also Help Food Workers?

Michelle Chen

The Nation

What your community eats is based on what feeds into your social system. In Los Angeles, on one end of the food chain, in goes massive regional agricultural production, the labor of more than a million workers, and a transnational culinary palate, fueled by immigration. On other end, out comes roiling urban food markets, billions of dollars in worldwide produce exports, mom’s tamale cart and countless hungry school kids. But distilling this into an actual citywide food policy can be a messy business in a place where the Korean taco truck parks beween the artisanal wine bar and corner bodega. The city’s food policy initiatives are working toward that complex blend of good politics, good taste and marketing savvy.

The LA Food Policy Council’s Good Food Purchasing Program has for the past two years (with many years of planning) sought to link principles of economic justice with public and ecological health, in a way that, unlike other more elitist food trends, focuses on the nourishment of working-class families.

As an initial step, the council’s Good Food Purchasing Pledge system encourages large institutions, like city agencies, to systematically make their food procurement practices more sustainable in five key issue areas: “local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition.” Participating institutions are rated on their performance in each objective and can receive technical assistance to properly source products and track progress.

The “valued workforce” component is perhaps one of the most complex; traditionally, the consumer interest in eating well at cheap prices has been at odds with the labor interest of earning good wages under fair conditions. The program tries to boost quality on both the demand and supply sides of the market, in line with a socially integrative movement for food justice taking root in cities across the country.

The aim is to set a price point for turning a regional food system into a source of not just good jobs, but also quality produce and environmentally friendly farming. Another objective is to strengthen low-income communities’ access to affordable, healthy food, as well as to reduce pollution and other infrastructure strains that come with the distribution industry. By promoting regional market networks, the program aims to shrink the city’s carbon footprint and cultivate community self-sufficiency.

The food workforce, however, has a long road ahead to sustainability. According to a 2013 assessment of LA’s food system, about 1.3 million people work on the food chain, or more than one in seven jobs in the region, including “farm work, food processing, distribution, food service and retail.” But they’re poor: “the median hourly wage of non-supervisory food system workers in the LA foodshed was just $10.20 per hour,” while a “living wage” for typical three-person household is nearly twice that level. A whopping 18 percent of California food system workers are food insecure—meaning, they have difficulty securing a stable, healthy food supply.

To help fill LA’s food wealth gap, the GFPP seeks to boost the local demand for the products of regional farmers through the large-scale purchasing of institutions like public schools and the Department of Aging. The program’s 2014 progress report shows that since the LA Unified School District (the area’s “largest food purchaser”) adopted a local sourcing policy, “at least $12 million in healthy produce purchases has been redirected to local farmers, processors, warehouses, distributors and workers” and “generated over 150 new well-paying food chain jobs in processing and manufacturing.”

The participants are linked to a data reporting system to monitor “supply chain transparency” and ensure compliance with fair-labor policies. These include a longstanding ordinance for city contracts to use “sweat free” or non-exploited labor. Food Council analyst Colleen McKinney reports via email that companies can score additional points for working with contractors that adhere to good labor practices including:

Social responsibility policy (fair compensation, respect for freedom of association, safe and healthy working conditions, prohibition of child labor, and benefits such as health care, paid sick days, or profit-sharing), a union contract, are from a worker-owned cooperative, or are products that have third party certification such as Fair Trade Certified, Food Justice-Certified by theAgricultural Justice Project.

By providing proactive oversight, McKinney says, “The transparency we’ve been able to develop means that we can start to identify suppliers with labor law violations and encourage the institutions we work with to learn more about what was done to mitigate past violations as well as what is being done to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future. The idea behind the policy is to create large-scale, visible demand for food that is grown using responsible practices.”

As a voluntary program, the GFPP is currently just an incentive for “high road” companies, not a mandate. Yet it helps raise the bar in the industry and the institutions collectively wield considerable market leverage.

In tandem with fair food purchasing, one of the major goals of the LA Food Policy Council is to make local residents agents in strengthening the regional food system through small-scale commerce, which offers a homegrown counterpoint to mega-grocers like Wal-Mart.

The Healthy Neighborhood Market Network connects mom-and-pop business owners in low-income neighborhoods with government services and training programs, to help them navigate regulations for good-food standards and build their operations.

Some local markets are thriving on the sidewalk commons: farmer’s markets hawk produce and prepared foods alongside quirky mobile food trucks. The street food scene has also become more politically organized in recent years, sparking energetic debates over street vendors’ rights and regulations.

And the city of Quartz is now studded with various urban farming ventures. The urban agricultural developer Farmscape has seeded about 400 area farms and maintains about 150 plots, using a raised-bed garden model.

Under the umbrella group LA Community Garden Council, the volunteer-led Boyle Heights urban farm “grows organic food efficiently to distribute to the local neighborhood at low cost.” The system enables residents to rent their own plots, helping many immigrant families sustain their self-cultivated food supplies.

It will be a challenge for metropolises like LA to scale this up to serve the whole region, from farmworkers to restaurant bussers. As the city lets 10,000 flowers bloom in its local food innovations, it seems that turning a niche concept like food justice into a dietary staple requires organizing whole communities around a shared hunger for alternatives.