Restoring Justice Starts With Empowering Workers

Our food system, as one system in a global economy, exploits labor globally, nationally, and locally. It is structured to be unjust toward workers. Corporations are incentivized to minimize inputs, like labor, in order to maximize profits.

The major challenges facing food workers, particularly Hispanic/Latinx communities in San Diego County, are low wages, lack of support for workers’ rights, and lack of career advancement opportunities. In 2019, food preparation and service occupations had the lowest median earnings ($18,822) of any occupation in San Diego County. Since most San Diego food system workers are Hispanic/Latinx (47%), they are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, nutrition insecurity, housing insecurity, and other challenges associated with low wages and incomes. 

In the United States, food system workers face the highest amount of labor law violations, specifically associated with wage theft (i.e., receiving wages below minimum wage; not receiving overtime pay). Food system workers also lack union representation, and San Diego as a region lacks adequate labor law and regulatory enforcement. Without mechanisms for workers’ rights and labor law enforcement, employers are able to exploit workers when negotiating wages and benefits. 

We must overcome these challenges and build on community assets by advancing policies that incentivize employee ownership and protect workers. Food system workers need equitable access to business ownership opportunities in the food system so they may benefit from the profits gained through their labor. We also need policies to protect workers and their families, including the following: 

  • Minimum wage policy that provides a livable wage (currently: $21.19)
  • Wage theft policy that prevents employers from underpaying employees
  • Fair work week policy that ensures food system workers have access to predictable schedules
  • Local wage boards that set multiple minimum wages by sector and occupation

¹ US Census, American Community Survey, 2019, 1-year estimates
³ Based on MIT Living Wage calculation, per adult; household size: 2 adults, 2 children;

Moving toward restorative justice in the food system starts with empowering workers to lead the change toward a more equitable food system. The Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), where I work, uses research, community organizing, and public education to seek policy changes that promote economic justice and prosperity for working families. We work to end poverty by building a fair economy in which good jobs with healthcare coverage allow all working people to live with dignity. 

Personally, I am inspired to do this work because I believe that I am part of a collective. A collective of energy and intentions that are working to integratively move people out of the despair that current systems and structures have placed them in. I want justice and more equity for all, and a better earth for our people and all the organisms within it.

Derrick Robinson, PhD, is a Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst at the Center on Policy Initiatives. He is committed to addressing issues of economic and ecological security—specifically, food security and economic justice—and using his research to increase positive outcomes for all workers, families, and communities.

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