At first glance, economic justice principles and policies like paid leave or a child tax credit might not seem related to sustainable agriculture and food system policy, but history shows that these issues have always been deeply interrelated, and still are. Since before the founding of this nation, the US agriculture and food system has been intimately connected to economic power and injustices. From chattel slavery to genocide and broken treaties with Indigenous nations, child labor to immigrant rights, agriculture and food policies were primarily designed to economically benefit those at the top of the economic ladder, often by exploiting people’s labor and natural resources.
To break this cycle, we must jointly address economic and agricultural issues that disadvantage rural, working class, and immigrant populations and give outsize power to multinational companies.
Here are issue areas where the intersections of economic justice and agriculture are clear, providing easy entry points for policymakers to make change.
- Food and farmworkers continue to be exempted from rights afforded other workers.
In many rural regions, farm and food system work is still one of the primary employment options. Federal law exempts agriculture workers from basic workplace protections, and most states follow that precedent. Given that most food and agriculture workers are people of color, the exemption disproportionately harms Black and brown people.
Rural workers, especially those who are Black or Latino, are more likely to earn less than $15 per hour in similar employment than their urban counterparts, and are less likely to live in one of the 30 states that have enacted a minimum wage that is above the federal minimum wage.
Food and farmworkers have long been on the front lines of disasters. From COVID-19 to climate events, farmworkers often lack protections from both ongoing workplace risks and acute disasters. Federal and state laws provide farmworkers some protection from threats like extreme heat, smoke, and weather events, but more is needed. Laws and regulations are also needed to protect food and farmworkers from toxic chemicals and pesticides, which put female farmworkers at increased risk, as exposure can impact reproductive health. Colorado (2021 CO SB 87) legislators enacted a Farmworker Bill of Rights, which eliminates the minimum wage and overtime exemption for farmworkers; grants the right to organize and join labor unions; and offers new protections against heat stress, illnesses, and injury. New York (2019 NY A 8419) passed a Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act that provides farm laborers with collective bargaining rights, a maximum of 60 hours’ work and minimum 24 hours’ rest per week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, sanitary temporary housing, and workers’ compensation benefits. Florida (2019 FL HB 1285) considered a bill to address heat-related illness, and legislation enacted in California (2021 CA AB 73) protects farm- and fieldworkers from dangerous wildfire smoke.
In other areas of the food system, meatpacking plants and other companies are increasingly using forced and unpaid labor by incarcerated people, citing labor shortages. Federal law bans products produced by prison labor from interstate commerce, but agricultural products are exempt. New York (2021 NY S416) has considered a bill to make it unlawful to force an inmate to work against their will and to prohibit a public entity from profiting from unpaid inmate labor. Unfortunately, some states have instead attempted to remove restrictions from companies to use penal labor, while some companies have pitched unpaid work in a processing plant as a rehabilitation program for inmates.
2. Corporate monopolies dominate our food and farm system.
In agriculture, a “get big or get out” federal farm policy has led to fewer farms and farmers and contributed to at least two generations leaving rural communities. Today, many rural communities have only one or two stores, and farmers, ranchers, and other producers have equally few buyers for their goods. The lack of competition means that rural residents face higher consumer prices, lower producer prices, and less choice, while the consolidated business owners – often multinational corporations whose profits are not reinvested in the community – reap the benefits.
Enforcement of antitrust laws at the federal level could significantly help to lower prices, increase wages, expand choice, and redistribute economic power. While most antitrust action happens at the federal level, state policymakers can address the issue by increasing competition for independent businesses. In New York, the 21st-Century Antitrust Act (2021 NY S 933A) would update antiquated antitrust laws to shift the dominant power of big corporations back to workers, small businesses, and communities. State legislators can also work with state attorneys general to enforce antitrust laws and to work with federal regulators in the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission to object to mergers and acquisitions. The Washington State attorney general sued monopolistic poultry companies for conspiracy and price fixing.
States can also address specific harms caused by outsized corporate power. For example, often, farm equipment includes a restrictive contract clause that prohibits the buyer from making repairs, instead requiring the farmer to bring the equipment to the dealer, which is much more expensive and time-consuming. “Right to repair” laws prohibit this arrangement, allowing the end consumer to repair their device, whether it is a combine or a smartphone. More than 20 states have considered “right to repair” laws, including New York (2021 NY S 149, 2021 NY S 1512) and Oregon (2021 OR HB 2698), with Colorado being the first state to pass a farm equipment right to repair law, in 2023.
3. Many communities continue to face food insecurity.
24 million U.S. households faced food insecurity and hunger in 2022. Of these, 7 million households were food insecure despite receiving SNAP and other food assistance programs. Rates of hunger and food insecurity continue to be higher in communities of color, due to ongoing historic and structural racism and discrimination in employment, education, housing, and lending.
State policymakers can work to reduce this shameful number through a variety of policies, many of which increase food access while also supporting small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers. One of the ways policymakers can increase access to local food is through increasing use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards used at farmers markets. SNAP benefits are paid for entirely by federal funds, though administrative costs are shared equally between the federal and state governments. States must appropriate funds to establish and administer programs to accept EBT at farmers markets. These authorizations and appropriations often must be extended in order to maintain the program; some states have failed to do so and have lost the ability to accept EBT at markets. Maine’s (2018 ME LD 1584) comprehensive local foods economy bill increased access and consumption of local foods by expanding use of SNAP funds at farmers markets.
At least 29 states have a version of Double Up Food Bucks, a 2-for-1 farmers market matching program for produce started by the Michigan-based Fair Food Network and now adopted and adapted around the country. In Oregon (2019 OR SB 727), legislators partnered with advocates to propose an appropriation of state funds to expand their Double Up Food Bucks program. Using COVID-19 as an impetus, Hawaii (2021 HI SB 512) expanded their Double Up Food Bucks program past the $10 matched limit; this is just one of many ways the program can be adapted.
At an institutional level, state procurement policies that focus on local foods in schools and state institutions help keep money in the state’s economy and can benefit small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers. California (2021 CA AB 778) and Hawaii (2021 HI SB 1251) have made efforts to establish benchmarks for procurement of local products in schools; New York (2018 NY SB 7503/AB 9503) did the same through its budget process. New York’s budget also incentivized the benchmark by offering a higher school lunch reimbursement rate for districts that sourced 30 percent local food.
Other farm to school efforts include Oregon (2019 OR HB 2579) expanding its farm-to-school grant program, Michigan (2019 MI SB 927) expanding their 10 cents per meal program to reimburse schools for local food purchasing, and Hawaii (2021 HI SB 1316) legislation to establish an agricultural production tax credit for growers who produce at least 50 percent of food crops for local consumption. There are also opportunities in local procurement policy to increase farmer equity, such as a 2023 Illinois bill (2023 IL HB 3557) that would have required that 20 percent of state-purchased food come from local socially disadvantaged farmers.
If you are a state legislator that would like to work on economic justice and agriculture issues, reach out to us at [email protected] —we’re here to help!