By Cecile Reuge
Cecile Reuge is a graduate student in the Food Systems Masters Program at UVM and a community organizer around social justice issues. In this post, we asked her to summarize the findings of a new report from the Vermont Fair Food Campaign, a coalition of processing, manufacturing, and retail workers in the food industry who are advocating for dignified work in Vermont’s food system.
For the past several years, Vermont has surpassed all or most states in the US in local food sales as well as in other indicators of a thriving local food movement. Vermont is home to the largest single store cooperative in the country in terms of sales and is a Mecca for farmers markets, despite having such a short growing season. Projects such as the Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative have placed a new emphasis on building relationships between farmer and consumer.
But what about all the food workers in between the farmer and the consumer who make this food possible? Some of our favorite Vermont specialty products—coffee, ice cream, maple syrup, to name a few—require processing, packaging, and distributing before they arrive on our plates. About 57,000 people work in the Vermont food chain, mostly in the sectors between the farmer and the consumer. A new report by the Vermont Fair Food Campaign sheds light on some of the injustices faced by workers in the food industry.
The Vermont Fair Food Campaign’s study, which surveyed people who work in food processing, manufacturing, and retail, found that, on average, food workers make $12.36 an hour (about $25,000 a year), if they can steadily rely on full-time work, which many food workers cannot. This wage places the average food worker just below the Vermont Livable Wage threshold for a single person with no dependents and no debt. For those working in retail food sales, it’s even worse—they make only $10.27 an hour, on average. Because of low pay and inconsistent hours, nearly one third of food workers have at least one other job to help pay the bills.
Fewer than half of the people surveyed receive paid sick leave, and because of this, they sometimes work when they are ill—something no worker should have to do, let alone those who make and handle food. Many food workers said that their employers offered health insurance, but often they weren’t able to afford it—the average premium for a family healthcare plan was $227 a month. The average food worker making $12.36 an hour would have to work more than 18 hours just to pay for her or his family’s healthcare premium each month.
Lastly, more than half of the people surveyed in this study thought that organizing their workplaces might help improve conditions, but most were afraid of what would happen if they did. One woman working at a specialty foods shop said that management tells employees there that they want to facilitate dialogue, but when food workers speak up, they’re fired. Sometimes entire groups of employees are fired without explanation, she said, which scares everyone into silence.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations for making improvements to our food system. Among this list is a recommendation to establish a Vermont Fair Food certification program by which consumers can make informed decisions about what businesses to patronize based on their workers’ rights track records. Would you take the Vermont Fair Food challenge and buy only from businesses that treat their workers with dignity?