Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Job Creating Potential of Local Food Systems

Jobs, jobs, jobs.  Although the recession is technically over, the (nonfarm) unemployment rate is holding constant at 9.1% and the American public are understandably nervous about their ability to find well-paying middle class jobs.  On the federal front, both the President and a new crop of potential replacements are pitching their plans to get America working again.  On the food front, Good Food advocates are shifting their focus to promote the job-creating potential of the local food movement.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.  Local food jobs cannot be outsourced, they are Green, the multiplier effect ensures that more money circulates in the region, and you don't need to have years of formal schooling to land one (although sometimes it doesn't hurt).  However, often these jobs are low-paying, seasonal, and physically demanding.  What follows are a few highlights of the local food system job boon, as well as a reminder that the slogan "will work for food" can be both a rallying cry and a disheartening sign of the times.

Researchers and Job Searchers Agree
from the Union of
Concerned Scientists
In recent months, several key reports have come out that highlight the prospects of a national strategy focused on food-related job creation.  A summary report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists cites numerous studies to make the case that farmers markets create wealth in a number of ways. Regional studies such as the those conducted for Northeast Ohio or by Ken Meter at the Crossroads Research Center use input-output models to demonstrate where money in the food system is leaking out of the region.  These analyses are helpful for policymakers to determine what areas of the food system need shoring up in order to ensure that food system jobs and money stay in the region.

And its not just the academics who are touting the food system as a job builder.  A whole host of food-specific job sites have popped up, including Good Food Jobs and Sustainable Food Jobs (now defunct).  Industry blogs like Food+Tech Connect and Grown in the City have also recently added job boards.

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.

Veritable Vegetable, a distributor of regionally
sourced, certified organic produce
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.


Sarah said...

We need to change the direction we are headed. Agriculture in many developed countries is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations and that certainly does not help local communities. So many farmers markets right now are community-based and rely on volunteer labour, which almost inevitably stunts their growth. Wouldn’t it make logical sense to offer some public funding for a few otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets a year and create a significant number of jobs?

Mari said...

I agree. And that is basically the argument behind the UCS report: a little bit of money in Regional food systems will go a lot further - as far as job creation goes- than direct payments and other agricultural subsidies. However, I'm still concerned with the kinds of jobs farmers markets might create. Farmers markets are seasonal (mine ends in three weeks!), don't offer benefits, and are at the very best, part-time. These aren't necessarily careers, but sure, they're jobs.