The distribution sector is the network of aggregators and shippers responsible for transporting food products across the supply chain by land, air, and sea.
California’s part in the distribution sector provides the crucial bridge between many nodes of the food system — producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, consumers, institutional purchasers, and other food purchasers. Fresh, frozen, processed, or manufactured food products are transported by rail, trucks, ships, or plane to a final destination, such as a grocery store or restaurant, or an intermediary location, like a warehouse or regional distribution center, for further storage, processing, or sales. This sector relies on a national workforce of nearly 3.3 million to orchestrate this movement of food across the supply chain, involving refrigeration, storage, warehousing, transportation, and delivery.
Food transport involves not only the movement of food within a food production or processing region but also the transport of both imported and exported food across the country and globe. The aggregate mileage of the distribution sector, or “food miles,” has environmental implications from the method, route, and distance of transport for each food product. Nationally, food distribution is responsible for the movement of billions of dollars’ worth of goods — one in five of all wholesale distribution sales — primarily through grocery, retail, or food service wholesale operations. Wholesale distribution sales to retail stores and food service operations in the U.S. totaled $405 billion and $225 billion, respectively, in 2012. However, the benefits of this robust economic activity are not equitably distributed across people and places.
Key factors that have shaped inequities in the distribution sector include the following.
- Corporate consolidation and concentrated wealth in large wholesale distribution companies dominate the industry. These firms have access to resources and infrastructure for storing and transporting large volumes of food, at a scale, efficiency, and price attractive to buyers. Companies like Sysco, US Foods, and Supervalu are able to purchase vast quantities of a range of food products from processors and manufacturers and resell them to grocery retailers, institutions, food service operators, and other food businesses — this mode comprises over half of all wholesale sales. The remainder of all wholesale sales are moved through specialty distributors who focus on particular items in niche markets, such as frozen foods, fresh produce, or dairy products. Consolidation through corporate mergers have exacerbated inequity and accelerated vertical coordination — large corporate grocery retailers, manufacturers, and wholesalers tend to negotiate with each other. This leaves little room for small- and mid-sized farms, processors, and manufacturers to increase their market share and reach retail markets and consumers.
- Limited local and regional distribution infrastructure creates a preference for large national and multinational companies. Many communities across California lack regional distribution networks that link local small- and mid-sized producers, processors, and manufacturers to retailers and consumers. These small- and medium-sized distributors must compete with corporate retailers and big-box chain stores who hold vast networks of warehouses, equipment, and regional distribution facilities — horizontal integration — that maximize efficiency and are attractive to large retail, food service, or institutional markets. Many agricultural communities in California, although the source of tremendous food production and processing, often lack such distribution infrastructure. In these communities, big-box chain grocery retailers prefer to purchase food products from large distributors who source from outside the state for low prices, large orders, and reliability instead of sourcing from local farms. The small- and mid-sized producers miss out and are unable to connect with markets right in their backyard.
- Worker and community exposure to carbon emissions from transport are concentrated in rural and low-income areas. The distribution sector relies heavily on existing transportation infrastructure — the network of freeways, airports, railroads, waterways, and roads. These modes use tremendous amounts of energy, from gasoline and diesel fuel, and emit tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide. An estimated 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. food system is from diesel fuel usage alone. It is estimated that air travel for fruit, nut, and vegetable imports into California contributes more than 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Researchers estimate that the average distance traveled by food consumed in the U.S., from farm to retail, is 1,250 miles. The necessity of transporting food across sizable distances is constrained by existing transportation and logistical models. Exposure to emissions and other greenhouse gases from transport, as well as industrial food waste, disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color who tend to live along and at the terminus of transportation corridors.
- Low wages, job insecurity, and inequitable union representation are rampant in the distribution sector. Front-line workers earn a median annual wage of $35,000, compared to managers who earn more than $90,000. Workers of color also earn less than their White counterparts, at annual incomes of $27,452 compared to $42,234. Although the sector holds one of the highest union densities across the food system — nearly a third of distribution workers are in labor unions — certain occupations that are disproportionately held by people of color and those earning lower wages are less likely to be organized in a labor union. This includes positions like freight laborers and hand packers and packagers, over 85 percent of whom are workers of color; these positions earn only $17,787 annually compared to $21,692 among their White counterparts. Warehouse and regional distribution centers, in particular, depend heavily on temporary and contract workers, instead of direct hires. Workers of this status, and also misclassified employees, earn not only low wages, but also face fewer benefits, limited opportunities for career advancement, and little to no ability to collective organize as part of a labor union.
- Expand regional food hubs or other innovative distribution enterprises. Strategies that direct financing, resources, and capacity building toward the development of local and regional distribution infrastructure can equalize the playing field for small- and mid-sized producers, processors, distributors, and retailers alike. An emerging model gaining traction is a regional food hub, which the National Good Food Network Food Hub Center defines as “a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.” This model offers an exciting bridge between producers and consumers, connecting a network of small- and mid-sized farms to markets they have historically been unable to access while enabling fresh, local, food to reach nearby urban and rural communities.
- Implement equitable, values-driven procurement policies. Procurement policies and practices can create the necessary framework, incentives, and tools by which institutions — such as schools, hospitals, and municipal facilities — can commit to purchasing from suppliers that align with their core values. Harnessing institutional procurement can generate market shifts toward values-driven distribution and infrastructure networks in the food system. By adopting frameworks, such as the Good Food Purchasing Program, institutions can harness their purchasing power and create shifts in the supply chain by selecting vendors who are committed to an established set of values. The core values of those participating in the Good Food Purchasing Program promote fair worker practices that reduce the sector’s waste, water use, and carbon footprint; generate wealth back into the local economy; use environmentally sustainable business practices; and improve health.
- Strengthen worker wages, job quality, and the right to unionize. In the distribution sector, warehouse workers and truck drivers are the main categories of employees who get the work done, and they are often misclassified, harmed, and threatened by their work environment. Advocates can work with diverse health, labor, and economic partners to advance policies that ensure all workers, regardless of immigration status, have access to high-quality jobs. This includes policies that ensure the right to family-sustaining wages, comprehensive benefits, opportunities for advancement and training, as well as the right to form unions and collectively bargain without retribution from employers.
Equity In Action
- The Common Market Food Hub: In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this mission-driven enterprise focuses on improving access to high-quality food, particularly in urban low-income communities, by providing a viable alternative to mainstream food distribution networks for local farmers in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states. The food hub’s ability to aggregate, distribute, and market produce expands access to local, fresh food to diverse urban markets, including school districts, hospitals, and senior centers. Since 2008, The Common Market has aggregated and distributed more than $22 million worth of local foods from more than 200 sustainable family farms and producers.
- Good Food Purchasing Program: In 2012, the City of Los Angeles and LA Unified School District adopted the Good Food Purchasing Program, thus committing to implementing guidelines that benefit local economies and value nutrition, workforce, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare. Now, 28 institutions and local coalitions in 16 cities across the nation are enrolled, representing $1 billion annually in food purchasing. In 2018, the Good Food Purchasing Program received a Future Policy Award for Scaling Up Agroecology from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Future Council, and IFOAM Organics International.
Resources & Tools
- Warehouse Workers for Justice: The Warehouse Workers for Justices fight for good, stable, living wage jobs in Chicago’s massive logistics and transportation industry. The organization works to educate workers on their rights, help workers enforce their rights, and fight for public and private policies that promote full-time work with respect and fair wages in the region's warehouses and distribution centers. Recently, they helped pass Illinois HB0690, which bans charges for drug testing and background checks, mandates return transportation from job sites, and requires temporary-employment agencies to report statistics on the race and gender of hired employees.
- Center for Good Food Purchasing: The Center for Good Food Purchasing works with public institutions to harness their purchasing power to create a transparent and equitable food system. They offer a set of tools, technical support, and verification for implementing the Good Food Purchasing Program, affecting an estimated 2.2 million meals daily in participating cities and $500 million for every major institution participating. Beyond institutional participants, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have also adopted citywide policies to commit to good food purchasing.
- National Good Food Network Food Hub Center: A project of the Wallace Center, the National Good Food Network offers a Food Hub Center to build the capacity of food hubs around the nation. Their online center is a repository of resources, creates opportunities for networking, conducts outreach and research, provides technical assistance, and initiates multi-stakeholder partnerships. For example, their webinars address distribution solutions, planning aggregation facilities, and financial risk considerations.