food industry

Food and Climate Change: The Perfect Penance

Farm Fresh vegetables & fruits sign, Andre Blais /
Farm Fresh vegetables & fruits sign, Andre Blais /

As a nutrition student in college, I paid attention to the food we would eat on campus and became keenly aware of how much plastic and material was used and disposed of because of the way our food was packaged. It upset me to see so much packaging thrown in the trash every day. I raised concerns with the Dining Services committee and became a staunch advocate for a better recycling program on campus.

That was my first foray into understanding the relationship between the food system and environmental concerns and their consequent impact on health – something that became a much larger part of my life upon graduation, when I read the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and joined a network of dietitians focused on Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.

The more I read and learned, the more I came to understand the sobering facts about the impacts that our industrial food system has on our society. Power in agriculture has become more and more concentrated over the past several decades, leading to many “monocrops” – large swaths of land devoted to growing only one type of crop rather than a diversity of crops that keeps fields vibrant and healthy. We’ve seen unprecedented extinction of species as a result. Artificial fertilizers lead to soil runoff, nitrous oxide emissions, and pesticides polluting our waterways.

Injustice in the Food Chain

IN THE U.S. food supply chain, 20 million workers labor in hazardous conditions for low wages. Uylonda Dickerson was one of them. Dickerson, a 39-year-old single African-American mother in Will County, Illinois, would show up every morning, hoping for work, at one of the many warehouses that litter the landscape of her area southwest of Chicago.

The Chicago region, once a proud steel and manufacturing hub, is now a major portal for food and other commodities produced cheaply overseas, transported by rail from West Coast ports, and slated for destinations in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Ironically, the workers—more than 80 percent of whom are African American or Latino—who were displaced from good, union jobs when factories closed are now employed in bad, temporary jobs, moving goods made in China.

The warehousing and storage industry, which feeds big-box retailers such as Walmart, relies on a pool of temporary laborers. This exempts employers from paying living wages or providing basic benefits and workers’ compensation; it also short-circuits worker attempts to organize into a union. Their costs of living are then displaced onto society. One in four warehouse workers relied on public assistance to survive, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice’s report “Bad Jobs in Goods Movement.”

On days when there was work, Dickerson was not paid an hourly rate, but by how many trailers she unloaded. She was sexually harassed by male colleagues and harangued by her supervisors for taking bathroom breaks. The job took a physical toll: “My body still is not the same,” she told a Huffington Post reporter. “I still have aches and I still have pains. I have migraines because of the stress I went through.”

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