As we enter the holiday season and its seemingly endless meals, now is an ideal time to consider what consumers, business owners, and policymakers can do to encourage better working conditions for the people behind our groceries. The Economic Opportunities Program recently gathered leaders and experts on food policy to discuss how grocers can succeed by investing in their workers.
Congressman Dwight Evans, who represents Pennsylvania’s second district, kicked off the event by sharing how he became a leader in healthy food financing. In his own life, and in his district, Rep. Evans has experienced how a community suffers when its local grocery store closes. In his political career, he has led efforts to encourage food retailers to locate in neighborhoods in need of healthy food and employment opportunities. “My whole motivation was to create jobs,” he said.
The numbers tell an encouraging story. Rep. Evans’ work on the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative helped to start or expand nearly 100 supermarkets and about 5,000 new jobs, and became a model for the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The jobs created by these programs are more than a source of wages; Rep. Evans sees them as skill-building opportunities that foster economic development and dignity in communities.
Grocery stores serve as community anchors, not only through employment but also by creating opportunities for other retail businesses to flourish nearby. While grocery stores are important job creators, there is work to be done to ensure that they provide high-quality jobs that offer workers stability and advancement opportunity. Improving food retail jobs can benefit workers, businesses, and consumers.
“To have good food, you must have good food jobs,” said Eric Kessler, founder and senior managing director of Arabella Advisors, who moderated the event. One of the most important ingredients in a good food system is job quality for the 4.8 million food retail workers. “I can’t forget the terrible irony that so many of the workers who grow and package and distribute and sell our food can’t afford the food that they grow and package and distribute and sell,” he said.
Yael Lehmann, president and CEO of Food Trust, an organization that advocates for fairer food access, agreed. “We need to ensure that food retail jobs provide a living wage,” she said. “If we’re going to help to bring a grocery store to a community, we need to make sure that the jobs provided are good enough jobs that folks can afford to feed their own families — otherwise we’re not making the progress we need to.”
Just as important, Lehmann added, is to recognize that retail grocery jobs can contribute to economic mobility by serving as a stepping stone, allowing workers to “move up the ladder” either within or outside the retail sector.
One food retailer that is a leading example of the business benefits of investing in workers is Hy-Vee, which operates more than 245 supermarkets in the Midwest. Sailu Timbo, director of diversity at Hy-Vee, credits the company’s employee ownership model as the biggest reason for strong employee loyalty.
“With our unique ownership model, we’d say the number one thing you’ve got to do is take care of home… take care of your customers who pay your paycheck every day and take care of other employees,” Timbo said. The company also shares profits and allows each store to operate autonomously, encouraging employees to take pride in their work and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit.
YouthBuild Philadelphia is also partnering with food retailers to help young adults access quality training and employment in the industry. The organization currently works with Philadelphia ShopRite grocery stores to train and transition students and graduates into the workforce. As a partner in workforce development, engaged food retailers can play a valuable role in mentoring young adult employees, providing work-based learning opportunities, and giving them a positive start in the workplace that sets them up for successful careers. “We need employer partners who are willing to pick up the phone and have conversations, and show up with us and our young people and tell the story of what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what’s in between in term of what our alumni are doing,” said Scott Emerick, executive director of YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School.
Ultimately, the issues of job quality, food access, and healthy communities are deeply entwined.
The public health challenges of food insecurity and hunger are acutely linked to economic outcomes, said CEO of Feeding America Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. She revealed that working families represent 68.8 percent of food-insecure Americans, and those who are food insecure may have diminished job performance. Solving hunger should be a widely shared priority.
“Businesses should want to embrace this movement because it will enhance productivity,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “Humans should want this movement because it will enhance the quality of life and longevity of other human beings in this country.”