Restaurant workers whose base pay is $2.13 per hour. Workers in food-processing plants who trim meat — and develop repetitive stress injuries. Farm workers who are exposed to high levels of pesticides.
Those outrages have fueled the increasingly vocal food justice movement. Many workers at fast-food restaurants are protesting in the streets about low salaries and high job insecurity, but the industry is resisting with all its might. With pressure from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and unions, more and more restaurants are treating their workers respectfully and states are raising the minimum wage for everyone. (ROC has a nationwide guide to restaurants that are paying their workers decent wages.)
Farm workers have protested since the 1970s and have gradually won reforms in their working conditions. Without government help, for instance, the Coalition of Immokalee (Florida) Workers, with assistance from urban activists, have forced major supermarkets and fast-food chains to pay workers a penny a pound more for tomatoes. (“Food Chains,” a documentary film, will show up in theaters beginning Nov. 21; the book Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook profiles the campaign against miserable working conditions, even including what amounted to slavery.)
The Fair Trade movement reflects a globalization of food justice. Farmers around the world grow crops that provide much of the coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, and other foods to wealthier nations. The Fair Trade movement is seeking to boost the prices that farmers, who mostly grow food on small plots, receive. That provides meaningful income to the farmers and results in only minor price increases for consumers.
And, of course, the anti-hunger movement has long fought for the principal that every American family, indeed every family in the world, should have enough food to be free of hunger, or “food insecurity,” as it is often referred to. Food Stamps, WIC, subsidized school meals, and other programs have done wonders to reduce the severe hunger that afflicted millions of Americans several decades ago, but more needs to be done, especially with politicians trying to cut those programs’ funding in every year’s battle over appropriations.
However, broad as it is, the food justice movement has not been broad enough. One of the injustices most injurious to public health is the marketing of junk foods to kids. Young children have a double “don’t know” — they don’t know the intent of advertising, and they don’t know the long-term consequences of eating junk foods.
But companies spend millions of dollars showering children with ads and other inducements to eat fast foods, drink soda, and eat candy and breakfast cereals that might as well be called breakfast candy.
It’s time that parents rose up en masse and joined the food justice movement. Parents should be just as angry as the workers who are being taken advantage of. It’s outrageous that companies should market — indeed, be allowed to market — products to kids that cause obesity, heart disease, tooth decay, and other health problems. It’s challenging to recognize the cause-and-effect relationship between those products and those problems because the full effects don’t show up for months (tooth decay) or years (everything else). But delay notwithstanding, those junk foods are contributing to greater health problems and health-care costs than anything other than cigarette smoking.
Some of this year’s 8,000 or so events on or around Oct. 24 that will mark national Food Day will highlight injustices connected to the food supply. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which created Food Day, will be sponsoring a panel of leading food-justice advocates at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. But each of us could participate in efforts to right wrongs by protecting our children from the selfish ploys of food manufacturers and restaurants, shifting our food purchases in the direction of organic and Fair Trade foods, and patronizing restaurants that pay decent wages.
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