Commentary: US food system needs reform

According to the USDA, Americans spend less on food as a percent of their incomes than anyone else in the world.

This may seem like a good deal, especially for people who struggle to make ends meet. But, in fact, our cheap food economy is really a crooked one, with family farmers and food system workers underwriting a system that disproportionately benefits corporations.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into focus more than ever, by highlighting how the system cheats rural and urban working people out of a decent life.

Mario Ramirez, the lead organizer of the Voces de la Frontera Essential Workers Rights Network, says that companies’ responses to the pandemic have been far from adequate for workers in meatpacking plants.

“They treat workers like machines,” Ramirez says. “There were people, after raising concerns, who were fired and who worked there for 15 or 20 years. They thought they were like family.”

Ramirez’s comments come after the Voces de la Frontera Essential Workers Rights Network won a $264,000 cash settlement for workers who had been terminated after raising concerns over workplace conditions at Strauss Brands, a meatpacking facility outside of Milwaukee.

But the conditions denounced at the Strauss plant are not unusual.

Meatpacking companies across the country have been faulted since the pandemic began for failing to provide workers with face masks and health information, or ensuring that they maintain sufficient distance from each other.

And while some meatpacking plant workers have received additional compensation during the pandemic, Ramirez thinks it’s not enough.

“Workers risk their lives,” he says.

Ramirez is right: As of Tuesday, according to the Food &Environment Reporting Network, COVID-19 has killed at least 249 food workers, mostly in meatpacking plants, since the pandemic began. At least 58,058 workers have tested positive.

Average pay for front-line workers in the industry hovers around $15 an hour — far from a living wage for a family.

Farmers, too, have suffered from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jim Briggs, a dairy farmer and member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says COVID-19 has shown that our consolidated food system must change.

“With consolidation,” Briggs explains, “milk goes to just a handful of places to be processed. When one of the places shuts down in this pandemic, it throws a kink in the whole system. We wouldn’t have this problem if we had smaller processors for milk and beef.”

Farmers have been struggling, with restaurant and school cafeteria closings forcing large-scale food processors to retool, which in turn has created bottlenecks in the supply chain. This has made volatile markets even more erratic, leaving many vulnerable to price dips and unable to pay off debts.

According to the National Farmers Union, farmers receive less than 15 cents for every food dollar that is spent. The rest goes to food processors, retailers and restaurants.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the system to improve pay and working conditions for the people who produce the food we put on our tables.

Meatpacking workers need a living wage, improved conditions and legal protections for those who raise complaints. Farmers need a floor price for their produce. Both workers and farmers would both benefit from the enforcement of existing antitrust legislation, which would put the breaks on corporate consolidation.

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This pandemic has exposed critical weaknesses in our food system. Let’s work on addressing these issues so that essential workers are no longer treated as if they were disposable.

Anthony Pahnke (anthonypahnke.com) is vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University in San Francisco.