Meet the People Giving a Voice to Food Industry Workers

By: Shaun Dreisbach, Nutrition & Features Editor  |  EatingWell 2018 American Food Heroes

Joann Lo & Jose Oliva, co-directors of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, advocate for causes such as supporting immigrant food workers, fair wages for restaurant staff, better working conditions on farms, and sexual harassment outreach and education.

Meet the megaphones. Joann Lo and Jose Oliva are giving a very loud voice to a segment of the food industry that once had next to none: its workers—from farmers and food truck owners to servers and supermarket stock clerks. Together, these workers represent the largest employment sector in the U.S.—21.5 million people—yet they're some of the lowest paid, averaging just $10 an hour. "The conversation about food is often about how it affects human health or the environment, but almost no one was talking about food workers—the human beings who make the food system run literally from farm to fork," says Oliva. "It made us feel like an organization that would lift them up was pretty urgent and imperative to create."

Related: 2018 EatingWell American Food Heroes

Enter the Food Chain Workers Alliance. What's unique about this Los Angeles–based nonprofit is that rather than becoming just one of countless advocacy groups, they banded together 31 different organizations—such as Migrant Justice, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—into one 340,000-member-strong group that could amplify each other's calls for action and be a more powerful force for change. And their causes are as diverse as the men and women they represent. In the past year alone, they've organized rallies supporting immigrant food workers, campaigned for fair wages for restaurant staff, fought for better working conditions on farms and done outreach and education on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Lo and Oliva also just expanded their hallmark initiative, called the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), into the Chicago school system. (It's already in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.) GFPP encourages public school districts and other city agencies to source their food from suppliers that meet five key standards: they support the local economy, provide healthy food, are sustainable, humane and pay fair wages. "In Los Angeles County alone, GFPP has created 220 new jobs in the food system," says Lo. "And because it requires that food suppliers respect workers' right to organize, delivery drivers for the school district's produce and bread supplier were able to organize and join the Teamsters union, winning higher wages, better benefits and a grievance procedure. Earlier this year, 170 warehouse workers at this same supplier joined, as well. So the program is having a major impact on the overall infrastructure of the food system."

Joann Lo and Jose Oliva

3 Cool Facts About Joann Lo and Jose Oliva

Jose's food hero: "This is probably going to sound corny, but it's my grandfather. I'm an immigrant from Guatemala, and my grandfather was involved in the land redistribution programs that happened back in the 1940s in Guatemala. It was a very progressive program to map all the arable island land and then redistribute that land to landless peasants. To this day a lot of people grow their sustenance and are able to eke out a living because of it."

What motivates Joann's work: "I have two kids—ages 6 and 9—and I want the world to be a better place for them, and for them to have healthy, organic food accessible to them and to everyone."

Food-worker cause worth supporting: One Fair Wage, which aims to increase the minimum wage. Here's how to get involved.