The processing sector is the network of factories and facilities that transform agricultural goods into a range of food products for consumption — these products include raw foods, manufactured foods, and value-added foods.

Equity Snapshot

California’s network of food processing facilities — from slaughterhouses and meat packing plants; to dairy and vegetable processors; to canning, freezing, and dehydrator businesses — serves as an important intermediary link between producers and consumers. It is within this sector that raw agricultural products are processed to meet rigorous health and safety code regulations; converted into value-added and specialty food products such as baked goods, juices, or snacks; and then packaged and labeled for transport.[18] The food processing sector represents California’s third largest manufacturing sector — it added $25.2 billion to the state’s economy in 2012, employed 198,000 full and part-time workers, and indirectly supported an additional 562,000 jobs.[19]

California’s leading processing sectors include dairy processing, which accounts for $3.37 billion in value added to the economy and is directly or indirectly linked to 139,000 jobs, and the winery industry, which accounts for $3.65 billion and is linked to 100,000 jobs.[20] Other key sectors include bakeries and produce canning, drying, and pickling facilities. The state is also home to a sizable meat processing industry, including poultry companies such as Foster Farms, which is headquartered in California. Some 25,000 workers are employed in poultry companies across the state.[21] Although it is a crucial link in the food system, the processing sector is characterized by tremendous inequity. Significant challenges include low-wage jobs, limited worker protections, and unsafe working conditions for a predominately immigrant and refugee workforce.

Key factors that have shaped inequities in the food processing sector include the following.

  • Poor wages, invisibility, and limited career growth opportunities lead to a vulnerable and exploited workforce. Processing workers in California earn an average annual wage of $25,350 — well below a living wage.[22] Workers of color comprise the majority of processing workers and yet earn less than their White counterparts. Nationally, food processing workers of color took home a median annual salary of $24,441 compared to White workers who earned $40,122.[23] In the U.S., more than 80 percent of poultry, meat, and fish processing workers are of color, 60 percent of whom are Latinx. The national wage gap between front line workers and management is also stark, with managers earning nearly $90,000 a year.[24] The sector continues to rely heavily on immigrant and refugee workers, including undocumented individuals who face multiple layers of legal, health, and economic vulnerabilities. In recent years, processing plants have become a common site for workplace immigration raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeking to detain undocumented workers.[25]
  • Limited worker protections and unsafe working conditions contribute to the agricultural sector being one of the most dangerous industries in which to work. Workers in food processing plants face strenuous and physically exhausting work. They perform rapid and repetitive tasks, often along an assembly line with heavy machinery and tools. It is no surprise that the sector experiences one of the highest rates of workplace illness and injury.[26] The California Department of Industrial Relations estimates that the lost-workday incidence rate for this sector, at 6.5 injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers, is almost double the rate of 3.3 for all industries combined.[27] Workers, particularly in meat and poultry processing, face long shifts without breaks, experience wage theft, and risk retribution or dismissal for incurring workplace injuries or for exercising union organizing and collective bargaining rights.[28] Underreporting and lack of compensation and care for workplace injuries is rampant.[29]
  • Detrimental environmental health impacts of processing facilities pollute and harm nearby communities and neighborhoods. California’s processing facilities, particularly in meat and poultry, are disproportionately concentrated in rural communities. An estimated 205,000 jobs directly and indirectly linked to the sector are based in the Central Valley. These jobs make up a significant proportion of the workforce in places like Colusa County (48 percent), Kings, Merced, and Stanislaus counties (20 percent each), Tulare County (28 percent), and the cities of Fresno and Turlock.[30] Workers and community residents alike experience negative environmental consequences of factory farm and industrial processing facilities in the places where they live, work, and play. These facilities produce tremendous amounts of industrial waste and wastewater.
  • Inequitable distribution of wealth and ownership limit the economic security and asset building of workers, households, and communities. Large, national corporations — such as Tyson, Smithfield, Kraft Foods, and Nestlé — dominate the food processing and manufacturing industry. As with the production sector, vertical consolidation has disproportionately concentrated the wealth and ownership into just a handful of firms. Small, family-owned businesses and women and minority-owned enterprises face major hurdles in competing with these companies. These small firms often lack the resources and capacity to scale processing and manufacturing of food, as well as to access retail and wholesale markets. Local entrepreneurs of color in this sector also face challenges in locating affordable warehouse and manufacturing spaces, particularly in rapidly developing post-industrial cities and regions.


Model Policies

  • Strengthen workers’ safeguards, right to unionize, and access to injury reporting and compensation systems. Policies are needed to ensure all workers, regardless of citizenship status, receive fair wages, sick and injury leave, meal and rest breaks, safety training, safe working conditions, and appropriate protective equipment — procedures are needed to ensure that these regulations are also enforced. Two key policy dimensions urgently need development in the processing sector — policies that enable workers to receive rightful compensation for workplace injuries, and policies that allow workers the right to form unions and collectively bargain without retribution. A robust injury reporting system is one practice that should be accessible to employees and also guarantee no retaliation or threat of dismissal by employers.
  • Offer manufacturing subsidies that promote good food and good jobs. Cities and localities can offer subsidies that encourage small- and mid-sized processing and manufacturing businesses to produce healthy food products. This approach can help build diverse participation in the sector by offsetting the high cost of entry into this sector and by requiring employers to commit to equitable practices. Strong subsidies with clear stipulations can incentivize employers to not only offer high-quality, local jobs with living wages but also encourage the production of healthy, affordable foods that are accessible to residents in low-income communities and communities of color.[31] Subsidies can also be used to require employers to integrate culturally relevant workforce development activities to recruit, train, and employ local residents who face barriers to employment.
  • Expand access to affordable processing and manufacturing spaces. A few emerging strategies that are enabling family-run micro-businesses to enter the processing and manufacturing space are the expansion of commercial manufacturing and kitchen spaces that meet health and safety code specifications and “cottage food” operations. Since January 2013, the California Homemade Food Act has enabled entrepreneurs to prepare and/or package select food products in private home kitchens if they meet a set of health and safety code requirements. A wide range of jurisdictions have also used the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative program to support the pre-development and development of affordable commercial kitchen spaces that food entrepreneurs can access to process raw ingredients and prepare value-added products.


Equity In Action

  • CommonWealth Kitchen: In Boston, Massachusetts, CommonWealth Kitchen works to strengthen the capacity of local food manufacturers. The majority of its member businesses are owned by people of color and/or women, and 70 percent of the member businesses’ employees are people of color and/or women, as well. CommonWealth Kitchen contributes to ongoing efforts to support emerging entrepreneurs with business assistance and kitchen space, enhancing the regional food economy through new food businesses.
  • Brandworkers: Based in New York City, Brandworkers advocates for thousands of food processing and manufacturing workers, in partnership with the Community Development Project at Urban Justice Center. Their main efforts strengthen labor standards in New York City’s food manufacturing sector. Modeled after the Greengrocer Code of Conduct, with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Brandworkers and its partners worked to include a requirement in the city agency’s applications that loan applicants state their compliance with labor and employment laws and sign a code of conduct upholding these standards.

Resources & Tools

  • Food Chain Workers Alliance: The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a national coalition of worker-based organizations, representing more than 300,000 farmworkers, warehouse, meatpacking, and distribution workers; workers in the restaurant industry; and workers all along the food chain. Through growth, learning, campaigns, messages, and movement building, the alliance’s work centers on workers’ rights and is based on the principles of social, environmental, and racial justice.
  • Food Labor Research Center: The Food Labor Research Center, a project of UC Berkeley, takes an intersectional perspective on food and labor issues in the U.S. and internationally. Launched in 2012 by Saru Jayaraman, the center publishes reports on an array of topics related to the working conditions and wages of workers across the food system, such as retirement security, green economy programs, and low-wage work.
  • Urban Manufacturing Alliance: The Urban Manufacturing Alliance is a project of the Pratt Center for Community Development and SFMade, as a national network of small business advocates, manufacturing associations, city governments, and urban industrial experts. Through communities of practice and policy research, the alliance works to uplift equity issues in manufacturing and communities, such as workforce development, land use policy, and urban development.