The blog of the Urban Institute
June 8, 2020

How COVID-19 Food Chain Relief Can Build a More Equitable Food System for Workers

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting food supply chains across the US, two disparate images have flooded the news and social media: empty grocery shelves as people fearfully stock up and farmers dumping food they cannot sell. This juxtaposition illustrates COVID-19’s vast shocks to the food chain. Food banks lack needed resources, restaurant workers have lost jobs or face risk of infection at work, and “essential workers,” like farmworkers and meat packers—many of whom receive low wages and are disproportionately people of color—are continuing to work while at a considerable health risk.

Labor and food are inextricably linked in the food supply chain. Although there are many components of the food system, COVID-19 has laid bare the racial inequities for workers at the two ends, the production and service sectors. As policymakers consider how to reinvigorate the food supply chain, they can examine these racial disparities and develop a path forward that ensures all workers benefit from their roles in the food system. 

COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities across the food supply chain

The racial composition of landowners, those harvesting food, and food service workers show the deep structural imbalances in the US food system that continuously put people of color at risk to produce and distribute food.

For centuries, discriminatory homesteading laws and US Department of Agriculture lending practices and subsidies have prevented people of color from purchasing or retaining ownership of land. As a result, white people in the US own more than 500 million acres of farmland (PDF), nearly 11 times greater than the 46 million acres owned by American Indians and Alaska Natives, the second-highest group. Black people own only 2.5 million acres, and Asian people own 1.6 million.

The workers employed by these landowners often look nothing like them: 68 percent of hired farmworkers are people of color, and an estimated 75 percent are undocumented.

On the other end of the supply chain, people of color make up half of food service and preparation workers and experience poverty at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Only 8 percent of restaurants are Black owned, and Chinese restaurants have experienced disproportionate closures compared with other cuisines.

Critical labor protections, especially those passed with the New Deal, actually exclude many food chain occupations from just labor regulations. This exclusion, coupled with corporate industrialization of the food system that calls for cheap labor, perpetuate inequalities. 

Although federal relief packages, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, have taken steps to protect the food supply chain, inequities limit the reach of that aid. More than two-thirds of the nearly $24 billion allocated in the CARES Act for agricultural producers will go to white landowners, not the farmworkers whose already tenuous livelihoods and health are threatened by the pandemic.

For the food service industry, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allocated more than $670 billion in two rounds of funding to small businesses, including restaurants and other food businesses. But in the first tranche of funding, the heavily hit food service sector did not receive a share of PPP funds proportionate to its losses. The Center for Responsible Learning also reports (PDF) the PPP funds will not reach more than 90 percent of Black-, Hispanic/Latinx-, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander–owned businesses, nor will it help 75 percent of Asian-owned businesses.

How policymakers can improve the lives of farm and food service workers

As policymakers debate additional stimulus money and paths toward recovery, they can take concrete steps to increase the flow of capital to food production and service workers and reduce food system inequities. Some critical elements of support include more equitable landownership, business ownership, and worker rights.

1. Identify paths for agricultural land redistribution and ownership among people of color

Initially, Europeans stole land from hundreds of Indigenous nations in the founding and growth of the US, and, more recently, systemic land theft from Black farmers has left few with opportunities for landownership. There are many possible actions to advance land acknowledgement and transfer to Indigenous peoples. Guaranteeing that current and future disaster payments go to farmers of color, ensuring fair lending so farmers of color don’t lose land and can purchase land, and providing people of color with opportunities to become farmers with culturally relevant agricultural skills and equipment can increase fairness in landownership. Such changes could build wealth among historically marginalized groups, provide economic supports for retired and young adult populations in particular, and forge stronger connections between urban and rural economies.

2. Support people-of-color-owned food businesses and expand opportunities for ownership

Many restaurants owned by people of color are considered “cheap eats,” meaning owners are less likely to see profit margins similar to white-owned restaurants. In the immediate term, policymakers could design federal relief to ensure Black-, Asian-, Hispanic/Latinx-, and Native-owned food business are eligible for and have the tools to access PPP and other aid, and adding more diverse voices to the new Economic Council for Restaurants can better support businesses owned by people of color. In the long term, expanding access to culinary and business education, capital for small enterprises, and opportunities like community incubator kitchens and mentorship for entrepreneurs can provide crucial resources to these businesses.

3. Provide greater economic stability for food production and service workers

Addressing ownership disparities in food production and service industries cannot happen overnight, but giving workers more immediate relief and protections has been proven in study upon study to improve livelihoods. Ensuring food workers have access to sick leave, safety equipment, rental assistance, higher wages, rights to organize, and expanded health care access at all times, not just during an emergency, can help them find more stable economic ground. Additionally, including undocumented people as recipients in all these actions (because they have been excluded from previous protections and funds) will help a larger share of workers.

These steps can “build back better” food systems, where people are less susceptible to the health and economic risks of major shocks, such as COVID-19, and can reduce the racial wealth gap and food insecurity.

Policymakers can begin sowing the seeds of a more resilient and equitable food system for all workers. The world’s drastic transformation over the past few months shows why we need an equally drastic change to our food system’s embedded inequities.

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. Fresh Harvest is the one of the largest employers of people using the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa for labor, harvesting and staffing in the United States. The company is implementing strict health and safety initiatives for their workers during the coronavirus pandemic and are trying a number of new techniques to enhance safety in the field as well as in work accommodations. Employees have their temperature taken daily and are also asked a series of questions about how they feel. Despite current record unemployment rates in the U.S. due to COVID-19-related layoffs, there have been few applications to do this kind of work despite extensive mandatory advertising by companies such as Fresh Harvest. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

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