Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Americans love to talk about food—how asparagus is best prepared, which preservatives to avoid, which types of fish are in peril, where to find the best tacos or most delectable peach pies. Most of us spend far less time contemplating the people that pick, slaughter, sort, process, and deliver the products of this 1.8 trillion dollar industry—a group of workers that makes up one-sixth of the country's workforce.
Lowest Paying Jobs and Median Wages
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011 1. Combined Food Prep and Serving: $18,230 2. Fast Food Cooks: $18,300 3. Dishwashers: $18,360 4. Dining Room/Cafeteria Attendants and Bartender Helpers: $18,420 5. Shampooers: $18,420 6. Gaming Dealers: $18,460 7. Counter Attendants (Cafeteria, Food Concession, and Coffee Shop): $18,510 8. Hosts and Hostesses: $18,560 9. Waiters and Waitresses: $18,570
10. Ushers, Lobby Attendents, and Ticket Takers: $18,610
Unfortunately, the majority of these workers take home crummy wages and few benefits, according to a new report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Perhaps most strikingly, among workers surveyed by the FCWA, only 13.5 percent made a liveable wage (an amount FCWA defines as higher than 150 percent of the regional poverty level). And not a single agricultural worker of around the 90 surveyed said they earned enough to live on.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance survey results echo sobering realities about jobs across what the FCWA calls "the food chain": a vast network of laborers in the production, processing, and distribution of food. In 2011, the lowest-paying jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were combined food preparers and servers and fast food cooks; restaurant servers and hosts, farmworkers, baristas, and food preparers didn't trail far behind (and all made it in the bottom twenty).
"Jobs in the food system aren't seen as high skilled," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "It's hard work; you need to know the right way to cut a chicken in a poultry plant. But the general perception is that they are low skilled and don't deserve good wages." Overall, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, food workers earn less than workers in other industries:
Source: "The Hands That Feed Us," Food Chain Workers Alliance
As the report points out, fair market Rent (PDF) for a two bedroom place (think: small family) is $949 a month. An employee would need to make $18.25 an hour to afford it; instead, the median wage in the industry is $9.28 for high school grads, and only slightly more for those with some college under their belts.
Sometimes these low wages had to do with employees being paid piece rate rather than hourly, making earnings more dependent on a worker's physical health and on supply fluctuations. In her intimate account of the working conditions of some food workers across the food chain, The American Way of Eating, journalist Tracie McMillan went undercover at a garlic farm to do piece-rate work. She writes of her coworker:
Even though Rosalinda's tarjeta will show that she came in at 5:30 a.m. and left at 2:30 p.m., a nine-hour day, her check will say she was there for two hours—exactly the number of hours she would have had to work at minimum wage ($8) to earn what she made via piece rate ($16). Later, I ask advocates if this is unusual, and everyone shrugs: Not every contractor does it, but they see it regularly. Earning minimum wage at our piece rate would require a speed that seems impossible: five buckets an hour. (In my month in garlic, I do not meet anyone who can average that for an entire day.)
Aside from crappy pay, most food workers surveyed by the Alliance have few or any benefits such as health care and paid sick days. More than three quarters reported having no access to health coverage through work, and over half had no health care at all. A glaring 79 percent either had no paid sick time at their jobs or did not know if they had this benefit.
Kristen Iversen was raised near the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, at a time when few workers at the plutonium trigger plant knew exactly what it produced. Eventually, reports of groundwater contamination, missing plutonium (3,000 pounds!), radioactive rabbits, and cancer fears drew protesters—including Allen Ginsberg—to the gates. But it wasn't until Iversen, by then a broke mom, took a job at the plant that she learned what was up. Her memoir is a deft rebellion against the silences, public and intimate, that have proven disastrous for her community.
Ahhh, May. Time to don your sunnies, dig out the sandals, and head for the nearest beach or park for about the next four months. By now, you've probably been lectured enough about the perils of sunburn and skin cancer to bring a tube of sunscreen along, too. But while the stuff is important for staying safe from harmful UV rays, there are still enough confusing labels, dangerous ingredients, and misleading SPF designations in so many common products that you may want to opt for a day under the nearest tree instead. Or pay very close attention to exactly what's in your sunscreen, and how often you'll want to reapply. So says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which today released its 2012 Sunscreen Guide.
The guide comes less than a week after the FDA pushed back the compliancy requirement for a news set of guidelines (33 years in the making) meant to urge manufacturers to more clearly label their products and toss out misleading terms like "sweatproof" and "sunblock." But even the now-delayed FDA guidelines, says EWG, fall short in some important ways.
For starters, the FDA's new guidelines fail to address the risk of trusting a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50. For sunscreens that boast SPF 100, for instance, "there's no evidence they provide additional health benefits," says David Andrews, a spokesperson for EWG. The higher value "lends to a sense of invincibility, so that people spend more time in the sun longer," Andrews argues.
Coach Eric Taylor he's not. You'd never catch Buzz Bissinger, author of the book behind the wildly popular TV series Friday Night Lights, rousing teenagers for an early morning practice. (And for that matter, you'd never catch his football coach protagonist going off on Twitter about "juice douching.") Yet Bissinger has remained engaged with the world of sports, regularly churning up strong reactions with his columns, which tackle subjects like Linsanity and how Americans love football because of its violence. A 57-year-old father of three boys, he has managed a successful career as a journalist and author, nabbing a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer and serving as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
But for his new nonfiction book, Father's Day, Bissinger turns to something a little more intimate: his tumultuous journey as a parent. The book centers on his relationship with his son Zach, then 24, a sweet-natured savant destined to spend his life bagging groceries and believing in Santa due to brain damage incurred at birth. In an attempt to feel closer to Zach, Bissinger drags him on a road trip from Philly to Los Angeles—"the worst cross-country route ever contemplated," it turns out, thanks in part to his son's predilection for amusement parks and distaste for scenic landmarks.
While Zach is compelling, it is Bissinger's wry and uncharacteristically self-deprecating meditations on his shortcomings as a father, a guardian, and a writer that elevate the book from a troubled parenting memoir to a worthwhile rumination on the meaning of life. I spoke with him a month before the release of After Friday Night Lights, a Kindle Single published as a follow-up to his best-selling 1990 book—despite Bissinger's insistence that he's sick to death of hearing about that book.
Mother Jones: What led you to drag Zach on a road trip?
Buzz Bissinger: I wanted to do something where we could spend real time together. Cross-country trips to me have been seminal, whether it was with college friends or my future wife Lisa, and I wanted to share that with Zach. Unfortunately, he really didn't like the car very much. But as the trip progressed, we really became closer and closer and fell into a rhythm of being on the road.
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign seeks to stop new coal plants and shut down existing ones. Our handy map shows you which proposed plants have been blocked, which ones are still progressing, and which ones are already operating.
For the past decade, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has helped toss out two-thirds of 249 new coal plant proposals, avoiding more than 654 million metric tons of carbon that would have seeped into the atmosphere each year. Since 2001, only 23 of those proposals have transformed into functioning coal plants, while 167 have been defeated. Next up on the agenda? Closing all of the some 580 coal plants already existing around the nation. Beyond Coal hopes to close a third of them by 2020 and all of them by 2030, and has employed a full-time staff "working on nothing but figuring out how to shut down these plants and replace them with clean energy," says Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune.