Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

Resetting the Good Food Table: Los Angeles Labor and Food Justice Alliances for Good Jobs by Joshua Sbicca

Presented by Joshua Sbicca, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University 

On Thursday, March 26, 2015, Dr. Joshua Sbicca gave a talk titled, “Resetting the Good Food Table: Los Angeles Labor and Food Justice Alliances for Good Jobs”.

Sbicca’s presentation focused on contentious food politics and alliance building in Los Angeles. He describes a food movement landscape – organic food production, farm-to-table, healthy eating, grow your own initiatives – in which secessionist politics reinforce neoliberal policies and inequality. Historically, the movement is less concerned with class, economic inequality, food workers, and the often confrontational politics needed to overcome such challenges (i.e. rallies, marches, lobbying, and working on elections). However, with LA’s strong labor movement, food labor campaigns are helping to push the food movement to reimagine food politics.

Food labor struggles have historically been part of the labor movement and largely separate from the food movement, in part due to a focus on labor instead of on environmental and health issues. But the growing interest in food justice has supported the cross-pollination of ideas and strategies between the labor and food movements, and ultimately, greater class-consciousness and confrontational food politics. Within these dynamics, Sbicca’s work examines how and why food movement alliances in LA evolved to include the interests of food workers. The methods included two months of interning with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, where he also made connections with a range of other food and labor organizations (e.g. Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles and Food Chain Workers Alliance). Nineteen interviews and over 100 digital and printed documents were analyzed.

Sbicca finds that because the Great Recession disproportionally affected low-income communities and low-wage food workers, opportunities opened to bridge interests, foster alliances between the food insecure and food workers, and increase overall commitment to economic justice. Moreover, confrontational labor campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of the struggles faced by service sector and food workers has served as a platform to inspire labor and food justice alliances. The resulting focus on food workers’ experiences has tempered the secessionist politics of certain middle to upper class white segments of the food movement. For instance, a report by the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores linked issues of food insecurity, nutrition, and unfair labor practices. Members also fought to keep out Fresh & Easy and Wal-Mart, while working to bring in union or living wage retailers that provide affordable and healthy produce.

Such developments point to a food politics that addresses connected inequalities through a lens of poverty. Labor and food justice activists concerned with food workers are infiltrating the food movement and spaces such as the LA Food Policy Council. Meanwhile, the labor movement has started adopting food justice concerns such as the need to tackle food insecurity/food deserts, and join in local food politics. This represents an exchange of social and political capital between the movements as they both seek to appeal to the needs of members, many of whom live in food deserts or are low-wage food workers.

This research suggests that confrontational food politics plays a vital role in restructuring economic, social, and political practices and institutions, which is especially urgent for food workers. By not engaging in confrontational politics, the likelihood increases that the agrifood system will perpetuate economic inequality. As such, the time is ripe for fostering labor and food justice alliances.