It's time for Washington to step up for food workers

It's time for Washington to step up for food workers
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New York is a food city. From neighborhood pizza joints to Hunts Point wholesalers, our food culture is one of the things that make us unique. But we’re also a city of working people and the 19 billion pounds of food that comes in each year almost always goes through a restaurant or a grocery store first — at least, that’s how it works in normal times. 

Today, with much of the city at home and businesses closed due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, the over 40,000 points of food sale in New York City are adjusting in different ways. As its “Food Czar” for the duration of this crisis, I’ve been struck by the resilience and courage of our essential food workers who help get food into the city and onto our plates.

The city’s food businesses are fragile, though, and the vast majority are small businesses. Most restaurants and bodegas have fewer than 10 employees. Even the trucking industry that is critical to transporting food to New York is primarily made up of small owner-operator companies who own six trucks or less. These are hardworking people and they’ve always known they were essential — but they didn’t sign up to be crisis workers, especially not without extra support. Washington must step up and support our essential food workers with direct funding for hazard pay.

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Restaurateurs anticipated a 72 percent chance of survival if the crisis lasted one month, but that chance drops to 15 percent if the crisis lasts six months. Many of the challenges with staying open relate to the labor force. For example, a grocery store with bare shelves may have plenty of food in the stockroom, but no one to put it out on the sales floor. A producer may have plenty of food in the country’s breadbasket, but have trouble finding someone to truck it to our markets. 

The answer is investments in hazard pay to give these essential staff the compensation they deserve during this unprecedented time, something that can only come from the federal government and that I was happy to see included in the House of Representatives’ latest stimulus proposal. 

The City of New York is doing what it can and we have built up tremendous institutional capacity to secure the food supply chain. We are working with national and regional producers and suppliers, fishermen, freight carriers, distributors and local grocers to anticipate supply chain disruptions and support them in any way possible.

We have launched two new temporary truck rest areas — one in Staten Island and one in the Bronx — to support drivers bringing food into the city. To realign the current mismatches in supply and demand, the city has launched a web platform to connect sellers with excess product to buyers facing increased demand. The city and City Council have secured $25 million in emergency funding on top of our annual $25 million investment to support food pantries, and we have built strong partnerships across the region to support food producers, wholesalers and distributors along the supply chain and build a more sustainable food supply system for the future. We are providing free meals at schools and through delivery to a growing number of homebound food-insecure New Yorkers who need it most.

But like all cities across the country, our food supply chain spans far beyond the borders of our five boroughs. Workers across America, from the meat processing facilities in the Midwest to farmers in California, are feeding us all. With cities facing unfathomable economic crunches, cities alone cannot provide hazard pay for all the workers who deserve it — only the federal government can, and without their support, all of our efforts may not be enough.

There is plenty of food in the system now, but to keep our supply chain active — to keep those 19 billion pounds of food flowing into the city — we need a federal government that protects working people from hazardous workplaces and values their essential service. The COVID-19 pandemic has spread pain and suffering across this country. But it could be so much worse without the commitment of our essential food supply workers. It’s time for Washington to support the hazard pay provisions in the new stimulus bill on behalf of the people who keep food on our plates.


Kathryn Garcia is the commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation and the City’s COVID-19 Food Czar. Read more about the City’s plans to feed all New Yorkers in need at nyc.gov/feedingnyc.