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Better Food for a Better Economy

The politics of our current food system have effectively marginalized millions of workers. On one hand, struggling small and mid-sized farms face elimination. On the other hand, labor rights for the people that grow, sell, cook and serve our food are often abused and ignored. According to Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, 7 out of 10 worst paying jobs in the U.S. are within the food industry. To complicate matters, food justice for these workers is often tied to immigration issues -- a whole other issue with which we must contend.

In Los Angeles, the connections between immigration and the food system is often visible on the streets. Street vending, largely done by foreign-born immigrants, has become part of our cultural fabric, despite the city's continuing efforts to penalize its existence. Vendors who sell tamales or bacon-wrapped hot dogs (the unofficial Official Hot Dog of L.A.) on a sidewalk could be fined up to $1,000 and face jail time. Despite these risks they remain on the streets, partly because of limited income options available to them.

California Central Coast Farm. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tercat
California Central Coast Farm. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tercat

Nationwide, immigrant and foreign-born food workers are the invisible giants of the food ecology. Approximately 1.4 million farmworkers help plant, harvest, and pack the food grown throughout the United States, and about a third of them work in California. The majority of farmworkers are foreign born (70% of hired, 97% of contract) and Hispanic/Latino (75% of hired, 99% of contract); many are unauthorized to work in the U.S.

According to 2008 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks are illegal immigrants; among the 360,000 dishwashers, 28 percent are undocumented. This work force operates out of public sight in the informal food economy, and therefore are not protected under the same labor laws. This leaves workers vulnerable to employer abuse, with little or no overtime, child labor restrictions, collective bargaining rights, or workers' compensation insurance.

Data in the figures are referenced from Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation & the United Farmworkers' report, "Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States" and ROC United's report, "Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality Opportunity in Los Angeles, the Nation's Largest Restuarant Industry."

Food Workers Below the Food Chain
Joann Lo, Executive Director for Food Chain Workers Alliance, describes the poor working conditions and social challenges for farm workers.

Unpaid Cost of Convenient Food
Mariana Huerta, Policy Coordinator for ROC United-L.A., includes working conditions of restaurant workers into conversations on improving the food system.

A Solution from the Streets
Rudy Espinoza, an economic development consultant working with the LAFPC, believes street vendors in L.A. can improve food security, but the workforce needs to be legalized first.

Gaps in Farm Workers' Streets
Muthoni Muriu, Director of Regional Programs for Oxfam America, contextualizes our food system with global challenges.

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