Of all large institutional food service providers, universities are increasingly adopting sustainable food practices — sourcing food locally, substituting highly processed products with fresh and healthy food cooked from scratch, and incorporating environmental and social criteria into the food procurement process. But universities — and the food service industry in general — are not providing sustainable jobs for the workers who cook and serve the food:
- The annual median wage for food workers on campus in 2010 was $17,176, substantially below the federal poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, adjusted for hours]
- 28% of food workers live in a household with at least one member on Medicaid (the government health program for low-income families). [2010 Census Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Survey]
- Only half of all food workers are covered by a private health insurance plan. [2010 Census Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Survey]
- Food workers have the highest turnover rate of any occupation, staying in their jobs an average of 2 years.
And many universities (and their food service contractors) have strongly fought efforts by workers, students, and allies to raise the standard of living. Since 2001, over one thousand complaints have been filed against universities alleging violations of U.S. labor law, and over one thousand have been filed against food service contractors. The billion higher education industry can afford to pay workers a living wage:
- In 2010, university food service programs had an estimated operating profit of $1 billion.
- Food workers represent only 0.6% of total wage costs for U.S. colleges and universities. [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
By not paying a living wage to food workers, higher education institutions are externalizing the costs of their low-road employment practices. Low-paid food workers must rely on Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), free and reduced meals for children to make ends meet. Furthermore, the employment practices of universities — and the broader food service industry — are contributing to the food insecurity confronting many food workers.