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Where Food and Funders Meet

Imagine you are sitting down to enjoy a delicious meal at your favorite restaurant. Have you ever wondered how many workers helped get that meal to your plate? Think about the farmers who grew the food, the pickers and processors who harvested and packaged the food, distributors who transported the food, the cooks who prepared the food, and the wait staff who served you the meal. These food workers are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that accounts for one-sixth of all jobs in the United States. And while the U.S. food and agriculture sector is among the most productive in the world, the costs and benefits of this system are inequitably divided.

FSG’s recent report on social and economic equity in the food and agriculture system, developed in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, found that workers in the food and agriculture system usually work in very low-paying jobs and face significant challenges in terms of economic opportunity and safety. For example, 75% of food workers do not have paid sick days or do not know if they do, and 83% lack employer health insurance. In addition, 61% of food system workers live below the poverty line due to chronic underemployment and pay that is below the minimum wage level. The work environment is also unsafe with 57% of workers suffering an injury or health problem on the job, compared to 4% across industries as reported to OSHA. This data from the Food Chain Workers Alliance's The Hands That Feed Us report underscores the many challenges facing food workers.

There is an opportunity to address these inequities by linking worker equity to the already strong “slow food” and organic food movements. A growing number of philanthropic funders and corporations focus on the quality and availability of healthy food through these movements. In 2009, the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders, a grantmakers’ affinity group, grew by almost 30% in one year. Among corporations, Whole Foods recently announced plans to open more stores in “food deserts” where underserved communities traditionally lack access to healthy food. Costco is on the steering committee of the Equitable Food Initiative, an innovative partnership with Oxfam America and other industry players to create a set of standards and training processes to produce safer, healthier food.

These movements represent powerful platforms for bringing a worker equity lens to philanthropic work in this field. There are several opportunities for funders to help improve working conditions across the food value chain:

  • Support advocacy efforts to improve working conditions through federal policy (e.g., minimum wage legislation) or through corporate policy (e.g., paid sick days). Improved equity will certainly depend on shifts in federal policy such as immigration reform and minimum wage legislation, but in the meantime, there are opportunities for foundations to support groups that are encouraging corporations to recognize the benefits associated with improved job quality for their workers.

  • Encourage the good jobs and good food movements to align their activities by exploring opportunities for these movements to collaborate. While the “good food” movement has realized much success in recent years, it also represents a potential platform on which to expand efforts to drive “good jobs”. Funders can support groups from both movements as they explore mutually beneficial opportunities to partner.

  • Fund demonstration projects to improve social and economic equity within the food and agriculture system. While many niche programs are in place, promoting and supporting the proliferation of successful models is still needed.

One organization that is aligning philanthropic interest on food equity issues is the Community Food Funders (CFF) group, which is helping bridge the knowledge gap and increase collaboration between funders in New York, New Jersey, and southern Connecticut. The North Star Fund, a community foundation in New York City, has helped spearhead CFF by inviting a diverse cross-section of local and regional funders to discuss important opportunities to improve working conditions and identify potential co-funding opportunities.

While groups like CFF demonstrate an increasing awareness of worker equity among funders, there remain barriers that need to be broken down to ensure that funders are working together effectively on this issue. As one funder told us, “There is a conflict between public and private foundations and foundations of different sizes as it relates to their comfort levels with different kinds of social change - large national or global efforts versus small grassroots ones…There’s an opportunity for funders to fund work to bring (good food and good jobs) groups together around some common campaigns.”

CFF’s work, along with other examples of funders across the country taking an interest in food equity issues suggests that funders can play a pivotal role in ensuring that advocates, corporations, and consumer groups are working together in driving for systemic change. What do you think are the most important roles that funders should play to improve equity in the food and agriculture system? How is your organization involved?

Laura S.L. Herman

Former Managing Director, FSG