24 Hours A Day: The True Cost of Time Within our Food System

24 Hours A Day: The True Cost of Time Within our Food System

Written by: Vanessa Mukhebi, Katy Hart, Nyree Hall, Selena Mao, Minnie Ringland, and Jackie Suggitt | Photo Credit: Uzoma Obasi ©

May 10, 2022

24 Hours a Day: A Poem by Nyree Hall

Wake up in the

morning

No sun is in my eyes

My time

does not belong to me

and there's no

time to cry

5 am I'm on that bus

to start the day

on time

And even though

I'm off at 4

I won't be home till 9

I'm doing the best I can

povertys’ not the plan

I did everything right

So why is this my fight?

I work from can see

I work till can't see

Just to make little

money

It's kinda hard to eat

Not enough

transportation

lack of

consideration

for those of us

who don't have

access to the upper

crust

My grocery store

is further

the bus stop

farther still

and when there's

no sidewalks

the cars could

get you killed

Ever miscalculate time?

Cuz of the wait in line?

And you missed your bus

that's 2 more hours plus

until you're finally home

and get into the zone

But wait you gotta cook

and then there's chores to do

and you gotta be in bed

early enough to do

Everything all again

Monday to Friday

And yet they say we

all have

24 hours a day 


Do we all have 24 hours in a day? 

You’ve probably heard or seen this quote before — “Many things aren’t equal, but we all have the same 24 hours as Oprah Winfrey.” But is this really true?

Sure, the measurement of time is a common denominator, but beyond comparison being a thief of joy, ‘motivational quotes’ such as these often invalidate the compounded factors and structural barriers that restrict what people are able to accomplish within the span of a day.

Take our current food system for instance. Like many of you, our organization aims to build a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system by minimizing the environmental footprint of food production and making the best use of the food we grow so that it can go towards its ultimate purpose of feeding our communities. 

While we certainly are racing against the clock to halve the amount of food that goes uneaten by 2030 for the benefit of our people and planet, time remains a precious and finite resource that not everyone can afford. From the growing rate of food inaccessibility to the surge in environmental justice concerns, there are imbalances in time-use, availability, and accessibility that inhibit and constrain groups who have been historically marginalized from actualizing opportunities and resources within our food system on the same level playing field as others.

Under the umbrella of the 2022 Food Waste Solution Summit theme — No Time | No Food to Waste — Uzoma Obasi and members of the ReFED team have created an art installation to examine the relationship with food and the ‘luxury of time’ from a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice lens within Minnesota and across the country. This exhibit maps and speaks to how efforts and initiatives throughout the food system can sometimes negate or render invisible the inequities, disproportionate access, and power dynamics that exist at various points in the food supply chain due to time-related barriers. 

Environmental Justice: The Short and Long Term Effects of Climate Change 

Several decades of research in the field of environmental justice have established clear patterns of racial and socioeconomic disparities in the distribution of a large array of environmental hazards. 

The ways in which we manage food waste has huge implications in terms of both climate change and

public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other material in our waste streams, constituting 24% of the material sent to landfills and 22% of the material burned for energy.

In landfills, food breaks down and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is increasingly gaining focus as a target for reduction to slow global warming before 2050. The longer-term impacts of climate change - including increased temperatures, more frequent and severe heat waves, increased flooding and storm events, loss of natural habitats, and shifting growing patterns — are known to disproportionately burden communities that already suffer from discrimination and restricted resources. Continued generation of methane by landfills not only exposes neighboring communities to foul odors and rare but potential explosion, respiratory irritation, and asphyxiation hazards, but also subjects them to those longer-term damages from climate change.

Incinerators, or “waste-to-energy facilities,” are often promoted as preferable to landfills because energy is being produced from an underutilized resource (waste material) and emissions are supposedly controlled by filtration equipment. However, several studies show that both landfills and incinerators pose significant risks to neighboring communities by releasing polluting gases. Exposure to these pollutants via air or soil, either by living nearby or working at these facilities, has been linked to higher rates of cancer, birth defects, lung disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and asthma. Exposure to such pollutants can also increase the likelihood of complications from COVID-19, according to a report by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School.

The siting of these facilities is no exception to established patterns of racial and socioeconomic disparities in the distribution of environmental hazards. Waste sites, polluting industrial facilities, and other locally unwanted land uses are disproportionately located in non-White and poor communities. Just a few examples demonstrate this pattern clearly:

  • A report commissioned by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) reveals that 79% of the 73 incinerators remaining in the U.S. are located in low-income communities and/or communities of color, with 4.4 million people across the U.S. living within three miles of incinerators.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Twin Cities metro area usually generates about 3.3 million tons of waste every year. However, in 2020-2021 the amount of garbage going to landfills went up 30%. Although the uptick in waste generation likely has much to do with single-use plastic and increases in public health measures due to COVID-19 and may not persist, MPCA officials note that the metro "is running out of landfill space to manage waste.” Reducing waste overall, but especially food waste, would ease the pressure to expand or build new landfill or incineration facilities.

To prevent further harm to already vulnerable communities, it is imperative we rethink how we manage our waste streams to ensure food waste is prevented if possible — and if not, gets repurposed or recycled in ways that valorize the material without even more damage to public health and the climate.

Organizations in MN working in this focus area:

Want to take action? Learn more here and get involved with:

Food Access: The Gaps in Food Related Time Use 

Surplus food redistribution has been promoted as a way of reducing food waste and food poverty. However, access to food — especially that which is affordable, nutritiously valuable, and culturally enjoyable  —  is a highly inequitable experience in our current food system. While people of all walks of life encounter poverty, study after study has evidenced the disproportionate impact of the intersection of poverty and race on food access in America. Redlining, substandard housing, exclusionary zoning laws, and discriminatory policies are at the root of these discrepancies and have worked in concert to produce and exacerbate food inaccessibility. 

Here are just a couple of stark reminders of the differences that are faced by individuals based on race and ethnicity:

  • At least seven different peer reviewed articles consistently found that neighborhoods with larger Black resident populations had fewer supermarkets, longer distances to supermarkets, and more grocery stores and convenience stores. One out of every five Black households is living through food apartheid, with few grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers markets available to access food.
  • The USDA found that only 26% of Native communities are within one mile from a supermarket, compared to 59% of all people living in the United States. 
  • Hispanic American neighborhoods have only 32% of the chain supermarkets available to primarily white neighborhoods. In minority neighborhoods, which oftentimes face food apartheid, Hispanic Americans and other minority shoppers at the available grocery stores can expect to pay higher prices for lower quality foods than the non-Hispanic White residents of more affluent neighborhoods.
  • Compared to non-Hispanic White Americans, two race/ethnicity groups (Hispanic Americans and non-Hispanic Americans of “other” race) spent more time in travel for grocery shopping, while non-Hispanic Black Americans spent less time in the activity.

A concept that often goes without much attention in conversations around food access is time. On average, Americans make 77 grocery shopping trips per year, spending about 41 minutes per trip — or approximately 53 hours per year on grocery shopping, according to the Time Use Institute. Imagine the compounded challenges of living in poverty with low food access — potentially taking multiple forms of public transportation to reach a suitable supermarket, having to travel an extra 15-90 minutes to get to a suitable supermarket, or even one that is still open outside of ‘standard’ working hours. Imagine having to make those extra long, tiring, and possibly uncomfortable or unsafe trips 77 times a year. That time adds up and is time that our neighbors will never get back for more fruitful pursuits. 

Time presents an additional barrier for marginalized communities with limited food access who also experience food insecurity when they do not have the option to procure food from supermarkets or grocery stores and have to source their food from food pantries. There are grocery stores that operate on a 24-hour basis that allow anyone access to it whenever they want, however, food pantries typically operate on very strict schedules which creates its own barrier of accessibility. For some individuals on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and related benefit programs, it can be a full-time job to visit multiple food pantry locations, wait in line, and acquire the food needed to provide for themselves and their families. Not to mention that they likely still have to visit a supermarket or grocery store to meet all of their needs. 

Seemingly small changes — such as offering prepared, quick prep meals or leveraging technology to enable customers to schedule their food pickup (or even better, delivery) can be the difference between making it on time or not. There are organizations who are already exceptional at these and many other adaptations on the traditional model of food redistribution that are improving the system. 

Organizations in MN working in this focus area:

Want to take action? Learn more here and get involved with:

 
Wealth Disparities: Compounded Interest on an Inequitable System

Over a century of federal reports and academic literature have documented the decline in farmers of color and disparities in farmland ownership between White farmland owners and those of color.

The Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances found that “the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family”. This survey evaluates complex components of wealth such as home ownership, access to and participation in retirement savings plans, and inheritance. It does not focus specifically on the food system (or any other industry) and the wealth-generating or depreciating activities that sustain it, from land ownership — which is distinctly different from home ownership — to accessibility to loans and other financing mechanisms including venture capital (VC) funding, as well as disaster relief and subsidy programs. 

When we take these food-system factors into consideration, we see a similarly distorted picture:

  • Farmers and producers — not farm labor — are overwhelmingly White, with over 95% of those making decisions, holding positions of authority, and generating wealth on farms being White in the most recent (2017) USDA Census of Agriculture. The census similarly shows that approximately 97% of the individuals in these same positions are non-Hispanic. Meanwhile, 62% of farmworkers identify as people of color and over 80% identify as Hispanic. In Minnesota, the disparity is even greater, with less than 1% of farmers and producers identifying as non-White. 
  • Farm-loss is increasing across the board, however there is asymmetrical loss along race and ethnicity lines. Black-owned farm loss in the past half century has been estimated at more than twice the rate of White-owned farm loss. In 1997, Black farmers owned 14 million acres less of farmland than they did in 1920. 
  • The United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency — its major lending arm — has faced and settled lawsuits from African-American (Pigford v. Glickman), Hispanic/Latino (Garcia v. Vilsack), Native American (Keepseagle v. Vilsack) and female farmers (Love v. Vilsack) about significant discrimination in its lending practices and services in the latter half of the twentieth century.
  • Although not specific to agriculture, private sector financing is also plagued by inequities. The Securities and Exchange Commission reported that of the $69.1 trillion global financial assets under management across mutual funds, hedge funds, real estate, and private equity, fewer than 1.3% are managed by women and people of color. In 2020, McKinsey reported specifically on the private equity (PE) sector, showing only up to 2% of U.S. investment teams as Black and up to 12% as other People of Color. The decision-makers in a field like financing or wealth management are hugely influential in shaping the personal and professional lives of those that seek funding and the subsequent customers, communities, and supply chains that those investments lead to — or not  — depending on the choice of that decision maker. 

Accumulation by dispossession, or the centralization of wealth in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many, achieved over centuries of systemic racism, consolidation, and exclusion means that non-White individuals have lacked the ability to improve their position and create an enviroment of wealth-generation for themselves and their families. Farmland ownership is a notable component of wealth accumulation as it builds equity, can be used as collateral for obtaining credit, and generally provides greater financial stability for farmers as compared to those renting or leasing land. This has been fueled by efforts since the 1930’s aimed at catalyzing ‘bigger and more productive’ farms, but that inevitably meant funneling more and more resources to farming operations led more often than not by White males. 

This is an enormous system fraught with failures. However, there are organizations, coalitions, advocacy groups, and more working bravely and boldly every day to try and make our food system more equitable. 

Organizations in MN working in this focus area:

Want to take action? Learn more here and get involved with:

 
Treatment of Workers in the Food System: The True Value of Labor

ReFED’s research indicates that food loss starts at the production level. Low market prices and high labor costs are two factors that often make it uneconomical for farmers to harvest all that they produce. 

However, the agriculture industry has faced chronic labor shortages that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we rebuild greater resilience within our food system in its aftermath, there is an ongoing opportunity to recognize and acknowledge that our food system heavily relies on labor that is often undervalued and in many cases coming from beyond our borders. Immigrant farm workers make up an estimated 73% of hired crop farmworkers in the U.S. today. Without agricultural workers, including immigrant and migrant workers, a large portion of our crops would potentially go unharvested. There are many basic livelihood needs that are not accessible to undocumented workers and many other food system workers across the supply chain. Time, fair wages, and access to food are some of them. 

Let’s go forward in time and consider a future with greater equity, one when consumers and corporations pay an unsubsidized price for labor and food. An extensive analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation paints a picture of what this would look like — and cost — projecting food prices at triple of what we pay today in the U.S. The report goes on to break out the specific costs of different environmental and social factors that go into this increased price, including the livelihood costs of “labor, underpayment of wages, lack of benefits, occupational health, and safety issues.” Incorporating such livelihood factors into our food costs would come at a price tag of $134 billion annually — or just $406 per capita. 

What else would this more equitable food system change?

  • Better wages across the board. The federal minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 since 2009 with many advocates pushing for an increase to $15.00 per hour by 2024. The Economic Policy Institute has modeled how this would affect workers across elements of age, race, gender, occupation, income status, and more. If we paid workers a $15/hour minimum wage, 43% of those working in agriculture, forestry, and fishing would be affected for the better and 68% of those working in food and drink service would be affected. Specifically on racial and ethnic lines, White individuals would be the second least affected, with only 27% of the White population seeing changes. Meanwhile, 40% of the Black population, 17% of the Asian population, 38% of other racial/ethic groups, and 34% of the Hispanic population would be affected.
  • In Minnesota — where the average food insecurity rate is nearly 9% — our neighbors would be able to meet basic needs. The average food prep and service worker only makes 53% of what is needed on an annual basis to meet basic cost of living needs. 
  • Tipped workers would receive better pay and see knock-on benefits as a result which could have a major impact on our food system as it employs 60% of the tip-paid workforce. Tipped workers have a median wage (including tips) of $11.00 per hour, compared with $17.54 per hour for all workers. Tipped workers are subject to more erratic and unpredictable income as compared to those who receive a standard, regular paycheck. They are also victims of greater incidence of wage theft. The poverty rate of tipped workers is nearly double that of non-tipped workers, with almost half of them relying on public benefits. 
  • Agricultural and other food system labor (e.g., manufacturing plant workers) would be valued for the incredible contributions they bring to our kitchen tables and the economy. This would be evidenced by changes to efforts such as the H-2A visa program that authorizes seasonal and temporary work by immigrant workers in agriculture and other industries and brings with it complex power dynamics that cause these workers to often be seen as disposable inputs. The H-2A program accounts for approximately 8% of average annual employment on U.S. farms and currently certifies 200,000 visas annually. 

This vision is not an easily achievable one, but it is one within reach. In addition to the organizations listed below, there are hundreds of advocacy and organizing organizations championing a better today and tomorrow for our fellow food system workers. 

Organizations in MN working in this focus area:

Want to take action? Learn more here and get involved with:

 
What Next? 

The food system is vast, and food waste is a growing field. Because of this rapid growth and injustices that we have observed for decades in our current food system, ReFED aims to focus on the intersections between diversity, equity, and inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) issues and food waste. 

Unlike ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030 for Reducing Food Waste by 50% by 2030, there is no Roadmap for how organizations and individuals in our sector can or should engage with issues of DEIJ. Using primary and secondary research, ReFED is conducting a landscape assessment exploring the intersections of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and justice within the food system, specifically what is successful and what needs to be improved in addressing food waste with a DEIJ lens. The report will be released later this year. 

For more information contact Nyree Hall or Lily Herd at Lily.herd@refed.org.


Acknowledgements 

This art installation and project was developed in collaboration with Uzoma Obasi and members of the ReFED team: Nyree Hall, Katy Hart, Selena Mao, Vanessa Mukhebi, Minnie Ringland, and Jackie Suggitt. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this project, please contact Vanessa Mukhebi at vanessa.mukhebi@refed.org

Uzoma Obasi

Uzoma Obasi is a creative artist based out of Minneapolis Minnesota. Born in New Jersey to Nigerian parents Uzoma and his family moved to the Twin Cities when he was just two years old. The blended experience of being raised at home with Igbo culture and outside the home with American culture has been a key factor in Uzoma’s ability to see the world through others' eyes as he creates. He is a photographer, filmmaker and producer but most importantly he is a storyteller focused on making sure audiences both big and small can be filled with all the emotions of being there in person by looking at a single image or by watching a video he has created. View website.

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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