Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 675–687 | Cite as

Food labor, economic inequality, and the imperfect politics of process in the alternative food movement

  • Joshua SbiccaEmail author


There is a growing commitment by different parts of the alternative food movement (AFM) to improve labor conditions for conventional food chain workers, and to develop economically fair alternatives, albeit under a range of conditions that structure mobilization. This has direct implications for the process of intra-movement building and therefore the degree to which the movement ameliorates economic inequality at the point of food labor. This article asks what accounts for the variation in AFM labor commitments across different contexts. It then appraises a range of activist perspectives, practices, and organizational approaches. The answer emerges through a comparative analysis of three California social movement organizations enmeshed in the particularities of local contentious food politics. The cases include a labor union representing grocery store and meatpacking/food processing workers, a food justice organization working to create green jobs and independent funding models, and an organic urban farming and educational organization. Commitment to fair labor standards varies due to differences in organizational capacity, the degree of dedication to ending economic inequality in local activist culture, and the openness of local political and economic institutions to working class struggles. The article concludes with a discussion of how these findings inform our understanding of the process of cooperation and division in the AFM, particularly regarding the complexities and contradictions of using food labor to combat economic inequality. Movement building in the midst of varying institutional, organizational, and cultural contexts reinforces the value of a reflexive approach to this imperfect politics of process.


Alternative food movement Economic inequality Food justice Food workers Green jobs Labor 



American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations


Alternative food movement


A local organic farmland trust


Community supported agriculture


Los Angeles


Planting Justice

SD Roots

San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project


Transform Your Yard program


United Food and Commercial Workers


United States


United States Department of Agriculture


Wild Willow Farm



Thanks first and foremost to the many people who spoke openly about the ups and downs of creating a fairer agrifood system. An earlier and less developed version of this paper was presented at the 2013 Yale Food Symposium, at which I received a number of helpful comments. I also want to express gratitude to the anonymous reviewers and the editor, Harvey James, for providing constructive feedback.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

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