(Very) Local Action on International Women’s Day

As an American woman on International Women’s Day, I am lucky to have the choice of which of the many issues affecting women in my community and around the world to advocate for. I don’t take this choice lightly. With women working around me still earning an average of 78 cents to the dollar our male counterparts earn for the same work and women across the economic spectrum still facing gender-related discrimination and violence, I am aware that we still have a long road to travel to true gender equality.

But I also know that American women have considerable power — especially in our ability to help our sisters on the planet who did not win the birth lottery of American citizenship. In our daily lives, actually, there are incredibly simple ways that we can impact the lives of other women — one of the easiest, yet most effective ways, being in what we choose to eat.

Along with running companies, women are still running the majority of household kitchens. According to Progressive Grocer, two thirds of women are the primary grocery shoppers in their households. About 60% of women said they spend more than an hour shopping for groceries, while 84% said they were the sole preparer of meals in their household, and over 60% said they prepared meals at least 5 times a week. Many women respond to this with a frustration that we are still managing the hearth and household while we also bring home the bacon, but we can also view this data as proof that American women have incomparable consumer power in the food system.

Sadly, women around the world are also some of the greatest victims of injustice in the food system. Of the 795 million people globally who are suffering from chronic hunger — 60% are women. Just like women are the majority food consumers here in America, women in the hungry regions of Africa are 80% of farmers and food producers and in Asia women are 60% of food producers. Our African and Asian sisters have less access to capital and land ownership (despite examples like Tanzania, where women with secure land rights earn three times more income than those without and India, where secure land rights have been linked to eight times less domestic violence) and, like Nigerian farmer (and 2015 Oxfam female food hero) Monica Maigari told me, issues like basic transportation and storage lead to food waste and to women taking lower prices for their crops than they would if they could get to bigger markets.

But closer to home, women who work in American food production struggle with basic needs and injustice that are enough to make you lose your appetite. One example at the center of many American plates is chicken. Americans are trying to eat healthier by switching to chicken over beef over the past decades — today we are eating 89 pounds per person per year, compared to 16 pounds per person in the 1950s and, in the 1990s, chicken surpassed beef as the most consumed meat for the first time. We want to feed our families the healthiest option and, as women food consumers are busier, we have shifted to buying 90% of our chicken preprocessed into pieces — which means we are relying more and more on chicken line workers to process it for us.

Oxfam America, an organization focused on injustice and inequality as key drivers of poverty, has launched an important and appalling campaign to raise awareness about the current, dismal state of poultry line workers. Oxfam estimates that there are 250,000 poultry workers and that at least half of them are women (the exact numbers are frustratingly hard to come by as many of these workers are in the US illegally, leaving them with little power or recourse against their employers). Poultry workers earn low wages, have few benefits, and work on increasing fast processing lines (real wages are down 40% and processing speeds have doubled since 1980). The industry is highly concentrated into a few powerful hands, the top four chicken companies control roughly 60% of the domestic market: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms.

African-Americans and Hispanic guest workers populate the processing floor of this Montgomery, Alabama poultry plant. High noise levels, slippery wet floors, with repetitive motion cutting and deboning chickens on the moving production line lead to high injury and job turnover rates. Montgomery, Alabama. Earl Dotter / Oxfam America

On the floor, female poultry workers have limited access to restroom breaks, must work at tables and with machinery meant for male heights and hands and are often subject to various unwanted sexual advances. But like consumers have shifted big food companies toward using fewer antibiotics in chickens and raising the birds more humanely and free ranging — we must demand that the humans who process our food should be treated humanely.

Just like we have learned more about what farms and fields our food comes from, this International Women’s Day we can remember the hands that grew and processed that food and use our collective consumer power to demand change. American women want to eat healthy and feed our families well, but that doesn’t need to come at the price of other women and their families. Learn more on how to advocate for healthier lives for the hands that feed us and remember that changing the food system starts with our plate — and you can’t get more local than that!

Co-Founder, Military Family Building Coalition. Mom of 3 Miracles. Author, "We the Eaters". Co-Founder, FEED. Sister on the Planet Ambassador, Oxfam.

Co-Founder, Military Family Building Coalition. Mom of 3 Miracles. Author, "We the Eaters". Co-Founder, FEED. Sister on the Planet Ambassador, Oxfam.