The U.S. food industry is deeply reliant on the labor of women, from cultivation to harvesting, processing, preparing, and serving. Protecting access to reproductive healthcare for women is critical to feeding the nation, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will have long-lasting repercussions on the nation’s food system.
Consider this. In the hospitality sector, 71% of servers and 52% of restaurant workers are female, according to McKinsey. In agriculture, over half of the world’s farmers are women, including 22% of migrant farmworkers in the US. And women do substantially more at home to prepare food for their families; in domestic partnerships, 80% are the usual grocery shopper and meal preparer.
Restricting access to reproductive health will impact women’s ability to work outside of the home, which impacts the economy; according to a 2021 IWPR study, an incremental $3 billion would be generated if all state-level abortion restrictions were eliminated.
Yet the industry has been chillingly silent in its support of women’s reproductive health since the reversal of Roe v. Wade by SCOTUS. Food industry leaders — from national conglomerates to pioneers of the natural foods movement — have failed to take definitive action.
The Food Industry’s Response
At the recent Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum, incoming Whole Foods CEO Jason Buechel was asked by WSJ editor in chief Matt Murray about the company’s support for women’s travel to access abortion.
Buechel stated, “We have a number of offerings within our broader benefits that team members have access to and the ability to support, and given their specific circumstances be able to talk through and understand what options are available to them.” He would not specifically say whether this includes the ability to travel across state lines and be reimbursed by the company for abortion procedures. In contrast, parent company Amazon
Much like Buechel, leadership in the food industry has been notably silent or evasive on the issue. Just 6% of the 102 companies (to date) that have announced their support for reproductive care are food industry related. Those include StarbucksSBUX, KrogerKR, Chobani, DoorDashDASH, CVS and Danone. Yet the food industry consistently reports the highest levels of sexual harassment and the lowest wages in the United States.
What The Rollback of Roe Will Cost The Food Industry
It is estimated that the SCOTUS ruling will impact access to reproductive healthcare for over half of women in America.
Abortion access will be restricted across a wide swath of farming states that are critical to our food system. According to the USDA, the top ten states by agricultural production (cash value) include California, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Carolina. Of these states, 70% have already restricted or are very likely to restrict abortion access, according to my analysis.
The average cost of raising a child through age 17 in the United States is $300,000, or $17,647/year. Blue collar hospitality, manufacturing, and farm workers are some of the lowest paid in the nation. Agricultural workers average salaries between $20,000 and $24,999 annually; restaurant workers average $27,300 a year. U.S. median salary for all industries according to the census is $41,535. A living wage for a family of four living in the US in 2022 is over $100,000, according to MIT.
The SCOTUS decision will significantly cost women and society at large. Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that “women who were denied an abortion experience a large increase in financial distress that is sustained for several years.”
Sexual harassment and abuse in the food industry
The food industry is rampant with sexual harassment, assault, and rape. In high profile cases just over the last decade, chefs like Mario Batali and restauranteur Ken Friedman were accused of unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment; Batali stepped down from his restaurant group. A Tyson employee filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment from a supervisor; when she complained, she was fired. Five female migrant workers were awarded $17.5 million after being fired from a Florida vegetable packing plant where they were subjected to rape and sexual assault.
These are not isolated cases. According to the Harvard Business Review, the restaurant industry has the highest reported cases of sexual harassment — and it is widely accepted that the rates are much higher, given how much goes unreported.
The issue is so prevalent in the U.S. food system that the federally-run U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has prosecuted a number of high profile cases resulting in millions of payouts to victims.
What Comes Next?
The food industry can play an important role in securing rights and protections for workers.
At the Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum, the President of Kraft North America Carlos Abrams-Rivera commented, “I’m very proud of the fact that we have focused on how we continue to extend benefits to protect women colleagues and their health, both in terms of the physical and [their] well-being…we’re covering abortion in our health care plans. And we’re making sure that people have availability for choices that they want to make in terms of travel to places where they [abortions] may be available… So for us, it’s about thinking, ‘how do we protect the health of our women?’”
There are industry associations that aim to protect the safeguards of workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was founded in 1993 to catalyze the food industry to increase worker protections against forced labor and gender-based violence in the workplace. Food giants like Sodexo, Target, and Walmart are a part of a CIW program to purchase produce like tomatoes from Fair Food certified farms. The certification provides retribution to farms where sexual harassment is reported by farmworkers; farms who are in violation will be dropped from the program and unable to sell to participating retailers.
Sara Polon is the founder and CEO of Fair Food certified company SouperFood. When asked about the impact of the program, she said: “When I spoke to one of the women who works on a Fair Food certified farm she said, ‘you know, once this farm was certified, I didn’t have to worry anymore at night about what was going to happen to me in the field the next day.’”
Of Fair Food certified companies, Target has publicly announced its policy and support for women’s access to reproductive resources and abortion. It remains to be seen whether giants including Kraft, Sodexo, Whole Foods, and Walmart will join.
Failing to support women’s reproductive rights — and protecting access to critical reproductive care like abortion — is a cataclysmic financial and societal issue. While the burden will weigh most heavily on women, the entire food ecosystem will suffer as well. Polon concludes, “At this point leadership and change is going to need to come from the private sector. We can’t wait any longer.”