If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.
Latino Labor in the US Food Industry, 1880–2020
Lori A. Flores
Food in 20th-Century American Cities
Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts. Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended. As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
Food in 19th-Century American Cities
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices. These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
Post-World War II Asian American Suburban Culture
Substantial numbers of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants moved into suburbs across the United States after World War II, bringing distinctive everyday lifeways, identities, worldviews, family types, and community norms that remade much of American suburbia. Although Asian Americans were excluded from suburbs on racial grounds since the late 19th century, American Cold War objectives in Asia and the Pacific and domestic American civil rights struggles afforded Asian Americans increased access to suburban housing in the 1950s, especially Chinese and Japanese Americans. Following passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, new groups of Asian Americans, particularly Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and South Asian Indian, joined Chinese and Japanese Americans in settling in earnest into all kinds of suburban neighborhoods. At the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Asians resided in the suburbs, which also became the preferred gateway communities for new immigrants who often bypassed urban cores and moved straight to the suburbs when they arrived. Entrance into highly racialized postwar suburbs defined by white middle-class norms and segregated white privilege did not, however, mean that Asian Americans gained entry or assimilated into whiteness. While many certainly aspired to and reinforced long-standing white suburban ideals, others revamped, contested, and outright fractured dominant notions of the suburban good life. By the 1980s Asian Americans of various ethnic and national backgrounds had transformed the sights, sounds, and smells of suburban landscapes throughout the country. They made claims on suburban space and asserted a “right to the suburb” through a range of social and cultural practices, often in physical places, especially shopping plazas, grocery stores, restaurants, religious centers, and schools. Yet as Asian Americans tried to become full-fledged participants in suburban culture and life, their presence, ethnic expressions, and ways of life sparked tensions with other mostly white suburbanites that led to heated debates over immigration, race, multiculturalism, and assimilation in American society. The history of post-World War II Asian American suburban cultures highlights suburbia as a principal setting for Asian American experiences and the making of Asian American identity during the second half of the 20th century. More broadly, the Asian American experience reveals how control over the suburban ideal and the making of suburban space in the United States was and remains a contested, layered process. It also underscores the racial and ethnic diversification of metropolitan America and how pressing social, political, economic, and cultural issues in US society played out increasingly on the suburban stage. Moreover, Asian Americans built communities and social networks precisely the moment in which the authentic “American” community was supposedly in decline, providing a powerful counterpunch to those who lament nonwhite populations, particularly immigrants, for fracturing an otherwise unified American culture or sense of togetherness.