Food Workers Are Struggling to Put Food on Their Tables

a farmworker carrying a box of broccoli

Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Many grocery and agricultural workers across the United States are struggling with food insecurity as the pandemic continues.
  • A survey of Kroger workers found that 78% of them are food insecure.
  • Food banks and local nonprofits have stepped up to meet the gap brought on by the pandemic.

Workers in grocery stores don't always have access to food. Over 8,000 workers at King Sooper, a grocery chain owned by Kroger, went on a 10-day strike in Colorado, demanding for higher wages, better healthcare benefits, and stricter pandemic safety measures.

As of today, a tentative deal has been reached between Kroger and the union. Terms of the agreement have yet to be made public and union members will vote on the deal next week.

The massive strike follows a report commissioned by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which surveyed more than 10,000 grocery workers at Kroger and found that 78% of them are food insecure.

“Every day it’s a struggle and the constant fear of getting fired is getting to me. I'm a single father and I live paycheck to paycheck to make sure my kids eat," a clerk at King Soopers said in the report. "There'd be days where I would starve myself so that my kids can eat but even that’s not enough."

With grocery prices and COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in many parts of the country, food insecurity remains a reality for many Americans.

The USDA defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources." It can also involve "reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity rates were slightly improving. In 2011, almost 15% of U.S. households reported being food insecure at some point during the year. The percentage lowered to around 11% in 2018 and to 10.5% in 2019.

But the pandemic disrupted the progress. A recent study by New York University reported that nearly 15% of U.S. households—and almost 18% households with children—reported food insecurity early in the pandemic.

"When you think of somebody who is facing hunger, I want you to look in the mirror. The people who are facing hunger look just like you and I," Dan Samuels, director of philanthropy at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, said to Verywell. "We're all vulnerable to having this situation in our lives. All it takes is one pandemic, one disaster, one medical bill you weren't expecting."

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida is a nonprofit that distributes food and essential supplies to more than 500 food banks in the Orlando area, a community with a large population of hospitality and restaurant workers whose livelihoods were severely impacted by the pandemic.

"Prior to the pandemic, Second Harvest was putting out about 150,000 meals into the community. We've doubled that since," Samuels said. "We put out about 250,000-300,000 meals every day right now just to keep up with the demand."

While the hospitality industry is starting to recover in Florida, many families are still struggling to put food on their tables.

"Food insecurity is not about a definition; it's about the people that it's impacting," he said. "It's the single mom who lost both of her jobs at the start of the pandemic and has three kids at home that she has to feed."

Dan Samuels

We're all vulnerable to having this situation in our lives. All it takes is one pandemic, one disaster, one medical bill you weren't expecting.

— Dan Samuels

How Community Leaders Are Helping

Established food banks weren't the only organizations that stepped in to address the growing numbers of food-insecure Americans. Community leaders across the country also met the needs head-on and did what they could for their neighbors.

In March 2020, Tomas Ramos founded Oyate Group's Bronx Rising Initiative with a mission to bring resources to marginalized communities in New York City.

"Before the pandemic, the Bronx was already one of the poorest areas in the United States. Food insecurity was already a big issue," Cyrille Njikeng, managing director at Oyate Group's Bronx Rising Initiative, told Verywell.

Around 17% of all people and 23% of all children living in the Bronx were food insecure in 2018, according to a report by Feeding America. In April 2020, half of the emergency food providers in the Bronx closed, compared to 38% that closed across the entire city.

Oyate Group's Bronx Rising Initiative stepped in to partner with GrowNYC, a local environmental nonprofit, to bring food door-to-door.

"Other Bronx residents actually joined us to go out and serve the food," Njikeng said. "The community is always going to need us until something is done for our community."

Across the country in southern California, a grassroots organization called the Farmworker Caravan have been delivering food and emergency supplies to agriculture workers during the pandemic. The first Farmworker Caravan included two commercial trucks and 90 vehicles full of food and supplies.

"Every single person in America benefits from a farmworker," Darlene Tenes, founder of the Farmworker Caravan, told Verywell. "In California, we produce 50% of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the US. We feed the nation in California."

Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Over 50% of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants who are often paid low wages and are ineligible for SNAP benefits. Long working hours also mean that farmworkers may struggle to get to grocery stores and food banks while they're open.

Tenes added that many live in shared housing, which makes them susceptible to COVID-19.

"The people who are picking the food aren't actually eating it, so they have their own food insecurity issues as well," Tenes said, adding that the houses are not always equipped with kitchens or essential cooking appliances.

The group continues to organize these supply caravans once a month. Donations are provided by local community members and nonprofit organizations.

Culturally Competent Ways to Help

If you're in a position to help, reach out to your local food bank. Organizers working directly in your neighborhood understand the unique needs of your community.

"A lot of time, people are giving stuff out to homeless people and they don't think about what they are giving," Tenes said. For example, many unhoused people who don't have health or dental insurance may not be able to eat hard granola bars.

She added that it's also important to think about cultural food traditions.

"One particular food drive was with a heavily Oaxacan community. We only got them a particular type of beans, rice and maseca, a corn flour to make corn tortillas," she said. "That's all we collected for them—those three items—because that's predominantly what they eat."

Njikeng echoed the idea that connecting with local organizations that work directly in the community is the best way to help.

"If you come from another community and you want to help the Bronx, we welcome you to do so. We will gladly partner with anyone who has the resources to help our community get better," Njikeng said. "People who don't visit the Bronx and spend time in the Bronx will not understand how deep this issue is, but we are part of the Bronx. We know the resources are needed."

What This Means For You

You can find your local food bank by visiting the Feeding America website and searching with your zip code. You can also visit the SNAP website to determine if you're eligible to apply in your state.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Economic Roundtable. Hungry at the table: White paper on grocery workers at the Kroger company.

  2. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Food insecurity.

  3. USDA Economic Research Service. Definitions of food insecurity

  4. USDA Economic Research Service. Household food security in the United States in 2019.

  5. Parekh N, Ali SH, O’Connor J, et al. Food insecurity among households with children during the COVID-19 pandemic: Results from a study among social media users across the United StatesNutr J. 2021;20(1):73. doi:10.1186/s12937-021-00732-2

  6. Feeding America, Map the meal gap.

  7. Office of the New York State Comptroller. Recent trends and impact of Covid-19 in the Bronx.

  8. United States Department of Agriculture. SNAP policy on non-citizen eligibility.