Thursday, September 22, 2011

What are local food jobs?

Sustainable agriculture certainly requires more people-power than conventional farming methods, but despite the long hours a farmhand might work, they are exempt from overtime pay and are likely not paid at all during the off-season. Beyond the farm, much of the Good Food movement is being carried out by non-profits, who (especially in this economic climate) are increasingly relying on poorly-paid or unpaid interns rather than full-time staff. But the real story behind local food system job creation may potentially lie in the promotion of jobs in the local distribution, processing, and wholesaling sectors. As the global agricultural system has taken over these sectors have declined in many parts of the country.  While these jobs may be less sexy than the idea of a small-farmer, they are certainly still very necessary to truly scale up the impact of a regional food system.
Earlier this year, Green For All, a green collar job advocacy group released a report called "Green Jobs in a Sustainable Food System."  The report outlines the workers employed in each sector of the food system and spotlights a few innovative approaches to employment in each section, including the fair-wage organic produce distributors Veritable Vegetable, and companies that include workforce training programs as a part of their business model, like Sweet Beginnings LLC.  The value of this report is the reminder that a local food job is not inherently better than a regular old food system job.  Good Food Jobs provide opportunities where they might not have existed otherwise, but also pay well enough to support a family, are conducted in safe working conditions, and provide ample space for personal autonomy and professional growth.
A pessimist might point out that if the economy keeps tanking we might end up creating a class of poorly paid farm and food-workers who provide edible treats for our increasingly wealthy elite overlords. Hyperbole aside, the food system world holds a lot of promise for job creation and community economic development, but it shouldn't be pursued blindly.  Careful consideration needs to be paid to the quality of jobs we are advocating for, not just the quantity.

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