Pandemic highlights food chain workers’ precarious and essential positions

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, news headlines have called attention to both “essential workers” in the food system, such as farmworkers and grocery store employees, and extensive job losses for food system workers, primarily in retail and restaurants. There are requests for contributions to virtual tip jars and for customers to buy gift cards from small businesses alongside fears of food chain disruptions, empty grocery shelves, and virus exposure while shopping. All of this highlights the often invisible precarity of essential workers in the US food system — and the precariousness of the food system itself.

The impacts of COVID-19 have exacerbated and brought to light both the essential services provided by this workforce and their vulnerabilities. First, it is clear how vital these workers are to the functioning of our economy and society. Across the US, 21.5 million people are employed in positions along the food chain. Farmers, farmworkers and distribution networks remain essential to prevent food supply chain disruptions, while grocery store workers, takeout staff, and delivery drivers continue to make sure that food arrives on dinner tables. For those still employed and now being recognized as essential, the income is important but the risks are great.

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These workers often earn poverty-level wages in part-time positions that lack paid sick leave, health care or other workplace protections. According to this report, seven out of 10 of the lowest-paying occupations in the US are in the food system.

For example, this Brookings report estimates that more than 900,000 people across the country were employed as grocery cashiers in 2018. These individuals have been classified as essential workers and require significant face-to-face contact with the public in close physical proximity. Yet, grocery cashiers and food preparation workers are among the lowest paid essential workers, earning on average $10.93 and $11.41 per hour, respectively, and are less likely to carry health insurance. Some also face limited measures to keep them safe, few opportunities to take time off work, and inadequate compensation for their sacrifices.

A further 3.8 million fast food workers across the country have been deemed essential workers (see Fight for $15). In 2014, FiveThirtyEight used Bureau of Labor Statistics Data to determine that fast food workers earned on average $9.08 per hour. As a result, many live paycheck to paycheck. When there is an economic disruption (such as the pandemic and pending recession) it only takes one lost paycheck to not be able to afford basic needs (such as rent, groceries, medicine, utilities or childcare).

News outlets have reported that many of these workers continue going to work despite feeling ill due to a lack of paid leave, fear of retaliation or an inability to miss pay.

While many of our essential food system workers go underpaid despite the risks they face, others are now without income as restaurants and other food businesses have shuttered. The Charlotte Observer reported that 935,000 people across North Carolina filed for unemployment between March 15 and April 30, 2020. While it is still unclear which sectors this has affected, it is expected that hospitality industries will be particularly hard hit. As described above, for these workers the loss of one paycheck (not to mention months of lost income) can be devastating.

Produce on display at the Davidson Market. Photo: Nancy Pierce

This impact is becoming clear, as local social service agencies have also reported a spike in demand for hunger relief. For example, Loaves & Fishes, a network of pantries in our region, reported a tremendous increase in demand for emergency food. In April 2020, Loaves & Fishes provided 15,535 individuals with a 7-day supply of groceries. That compares to 4,561 individuals during the same period of time in 2019.

These economic impacts are also differentiated based on race. This ESRI Blog maps structural racial inequities that makes racial minority groups more vulnerable to economic and health disruptions from COVID-19. It points out the historical inequities in environment, health, and economic opportunities that exacerbate the challenges discussed above.

These precarious livelihoods are made ever more visible by the pandemic. However, this increasing visibility opens opportunities to change our food system so that when we all emerge from stay-at-home orders and businesses begin to reopen, the value of these workers to our system are recognized through better pay and workplace conditions. Many organizations before and during the pandemic have launched campaigns to ensure a living wage, supply chain accountability, paid sick leave, and other protections for food chain workers.

For example, the Good Food Purchasing Program supports public institutions (such as school systems or municipal government agencies) in making food purchasing decisions that support health and equity. Cities that implement policy in line with the program commit to making food purchasing decisions which invest in a valued workforce, growing local economies, improved animal welfare, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. A focus on a valued workforce means that institutions purchase goods and services from suppliers with union wages, worker protections and healthy and safe workplace conditions.

Additionally, the Fight for $15 campaign has advocated for increasing the minimum wage across the country to $15. That would support many precarious workers in the food system. The campaign began in 2012 with fast food workers in New York City demanding a living wage and access to unions. This fight has made important gains and, more recently, has called for paid sick leave and hazard pay for frontline foodworkers. Since the pandemic, there has been more attention to calls for mandating paid sick-leave for workers such as those in restaurants, fast food, and grocery stores. Some corporations have responded to these calls, but many remain left out.

Importantly, however, many in the food system – especially farmworkers on smaller farms – would not benefit from this. They are exempt from many workplace protections, including a minimum wage.

Locally, there are many important efforts underway to ensure that hungry residents are able to access food during this difficult time. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council has been collaborating with the county public health department to roll out an expanded Double Bucks program that increases the purchasing power of SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

Loaves & Fishes worked with the Second Harvest Food Bank and many area partners to meet its unprecedented levels of demand, provide foods via mobile pantries and home delivery when needed, and create jobs in their packing warehouses when it was no longer feasible to rely on a robust team of volunteers. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also continue to provide grab-and-go meals for students while schools are closed. Anyone 18 or younger can pick up lunch and breakfast for the next day by visiting designated distribution sites.

Other social service organizations, such as the Camino Community Center and the UCity Family Zone, have shifted focus to scale up their emergency food service programs. At the same time, organizations that have traditionally brought fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods, such as The Bulb, are shifting their distribution models in order to still meet the need while practicing physical distancing.

Some pop-up events have also provided support specifically for food system workers facing unemployment or reduced hours. In late March, the Hearts Beat as One Foundation began partnering with Your Custom Catering to provide free lunch for bar and restaurant industry workers that have been affected. The Male’s Place and Brewington Farms also made fresh produce available to seniors along Beatties Ford Road through pop-up markets.

For those looking for more information about these and other services, Rivendell Farms of the Carolinas created an Emergency COVID-19 Food Access Resource Map to share food access information throughout the 16-county region surrounding Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council also makes available information about these activities and other COVID-19 food system responses on its Facebook page.

In addition to these emergency services, the increased visibility of the precarity of workers that bring food from farms to tables in the Carolinas opens an opportunity for critical conversations about how we can reshape our food system to be one grounded in equity, fairness, and good food for all. Check back soon for another article discussing hopeful efforts in that direction that are already making new connections between local farmers and consumers.

Colleen Hammelman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte and a board member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council. She can be reached at Thank you to Nicole Peterson for contributing ideas and feedback for this article.

Colleen Hammelman