Food Security and Unions | What's Left

Local Toronto food activists are working with unionized workers to shift local food procurement at the University of Toronto. By in-sourcing production and cooking real food they are showing that by working together, workers and activists can make a positive impact in our communities.

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From the outside, many may wonder why unions care so much about food security – defending their members’ interests at work and shopping at the grocery store seem far apart. However, food requires a lot of labour at every stage of production – planting, harvesting, transporting, storing, cleaning, preparing, cooking etc.. Workers are engaged at every stage so their working conditions are the conditions that produce our food, affect access, and drive quality.

Democratic unions play an important roll in protecting the interests of workers in their communities as well as the workplace. Unionized food workers, as well as their friends and family live and work in the community. As such, they have voted to make access to quality food a human right. In food industries, the tension between cost, quality, labour time, and working conditions are stark. This makes the need for simultaneous activism on the shop-floor and in the community obvious. In-house food production means more control over the quality of food and better jobs in the community.

Previous global union movement work

Unions around the world have long been conscious of the impact of capitalist food production models. Driven by local experience, global union federations pushed for class and gender analyses to be included in policy formation at the UN and Bretton Woods institutions. Thanks to this work, in the 1990s these concepts were included at the World Food Summit organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN. The Summit was focused on food security in response to the global recession and “surprising” increases in food costs.

Unfortunately, while class and gender became part of the discussion, the Green Revolution of industrializing food production and linking food production to burning oil continued forward unaltered. As the economy recovered in the late 1990s, policy makers once again forgot about the problems of linking food production to global capital markets.


Move ahead to the 2008-09 recession and we see that this was an obvious mistake. While wages were collapsing, the implosion of markets sent sent food prices soaring. Food costs, as measured by the UN, hit a 229 on the price index – an index pegged to 100 in 2002. By comparison, the index was at 170.9 in 2016. The price of food has led, in no small part, to revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and exacerbated imperialist wars in the Middle East. Once again, many were left wondering why food production was in any way linked to unstable capital markets.

In advanced industrialized countries, food prices all lead to hardship for families, making problems caused by low-value food (like obesity and diabetes) worse. The response has been a a growing rejection of processed food and a realization that the knowledge of sustainable quality food production was being lost through outsourcing to industrial multinational food companies.

Food security now includes demands for real food pushed by a renewed movement calling for quality, locally-sourced ingredients and meals made fresh on-site. It is not surprising that the battlegrounds for advancing this call have been medical care facilities (including hospitals) and public universities. By their very nature, universities are more susceptible to democratic activism and show it is promising that campus activists at U of T were able to convince the university to bring food services back in house, with meals being made on campus from fresh ingredients in consultation with nutrition experts. The positive benefits for workers being brought in-house is obvious: raises, job security, education and health benefits, and a pension for all the workers. The benefits for the university community is delicious food that supports the local economy that is sold basically at cost.

Victories like this should inspire those on other campuses and medical care facilities to take action to improve their local food production. Nowhere else is the link between quality food and life so obvious.

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