3 Big Reasons the Food Industry Needs Immigrants

February 17, 2017

How does a "Day Without Immigrants" play out for our food system?

Yesterday, in response to the new administration’s moves to control entry to the USA and follow through with deportation plans as well as construction of a border wall, the nationwide strike “A Day Without Immigrants” inspired many to close restaurants, not go to work, keep children home from school, to not buy gas, not go to restaurants or shop online or in stores. And while we wait for analysts to report the actual impact this movement may have had on the country’s economy or on the perception of Americans when it comes to immigrants, as a food industry, there are profound considerations when it comes to immigrants supporting our food system.

REASON #1: Agriculture - According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 57% of the country’s agricultural workforce is undocumented. And this workforce is employed mostly with low wages that help keep farms in business and domestic food prices down. Labor shortages have been reported by farm owners as a major concern, and while this affects large farms, less availability for labor also becomes an issue for small, family-owned farms, school food programs, restaurants, manufacturers, and the communities and families where workers have for a long-time built their financial sustainability on these jobs. 

REASON #2: Street Food - In major cities with large immigrant populations, street food vending is a major way for these families to support themselves financially. In Los Angeles, the mayor is attempting to fast-track changes to a law that makes street food sales legal  - an important move to protect these immigrants that could face criminal charges making them more vulnerable to Trump’s deportation efforts. So why do we need street food as a food industry? Street food plays an important role in ethnic food trends, the ever-evolving palates of the US population, and the inspiration for food flavor innovations in CPG and in restaurants. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, surveys indicate that 88% of households are consuming at least two ethnic category foods per month with annual food sales at $6.5 billion for Hispanic foods and 2$ billion for Asian foods. And it also deserves mentioning that Nielsen reported last year that Halal food sales reached $2 billion in the grocery and c-store channels. 

REASON #3: Restaurants - BLS statistics show that an estimated 1.4 million of restaurant industry workers are foreign born, working as chefs, dishwashers, busboys, etc. To some, this may not seem significant enough for alarm as it adds up to about 10% of the restaurant industry’s workforce. However, a 2008 study from the Pew Hispanic Center suggests higher numbers citing that nearly 20% of restaurant cooks and 30% of dishwashers are undocumented immigrants. These are low paying and perhaps to most, unappealing jobs, but obviously still necessary to keep the restaurant industry in business. 

While we face a highly volatile political climate, we here at The Lempert Report feel that close attention be paid to our food system’s dependency on immigrants as well as the cultural knowledge and innovation they bring to support consumer desires. Beyond the appetite for ethnic foods and economic benefits, the food industry also finds itself in a time when consumers are paying close attention to corporate positioning when it comes to human welfare. Last month, a CBS poll showed that 61% of Americans feel that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, and 13% said they should be allowed to stay, but not allowed to apply for citizenship. Time will tell how President Trump’s policies play out for our food system as well as our shoppers’ needs and concerns.