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Ordering meal kits for Thanksgiving? Consider the low-wage workers that make them possible

Sarah Thomason
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If the responsibility of preparing the Thanksgiving meal feels overwhelming this year, you might be eyeing a new alternative: ordering meal kits for your family’s dinner. And you wouldn’t be alone. Since arriving on the food scene, meal kits from companies such as Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Sun Basket have quickly grown into a multi-million dollar industry and are being used for more than just busy weeknights. But as we integrate the convenience of meal-kits into our holidays and family celebrations, we should also consider the many low-wage workers that assemble them.

Much has been written about how meal-kit companies use technology to make it easier to cook at home. However, this business model relies on more than just technology. Behind the apps that consumers interact with are large workforces of low-wage workers in fulfillment centers that prepare ingredients and pack them into boxes. This new and growing group of workers, who are primarily immigrants and people of color, has remained invisible in the narrative of how meal-kits are “disrupting” the food industry.

To find out what these new jobs are like, I recently headed up a team of researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education and conducted focus groups and interviews with workers at a meal-kit fulfillment center in California. In our report “Job Quality in a Meal-kit Fulfillment Center,” we found that in contrast to the company’s product, there was nothing new or innovative about the low-wage, dead-end jobs that the company had created.

At the time of our interviews, starting pay was $13.50 an hour, which easily qualifies as a low-wage job in California. Workers said that earnings weren’t enough to cover the high cost of living, and in fact, two workers that we spoke with were homeless. Moreover, the system for awarding raises was inconsistent, with some workers never receiving raises they were promised. The company offered health benefits, but most workers reported that the premiums were unaffordable and were instead covered by public health insurance programs; the company even brought in a non-profit group to sign up workers for the state’s Medicaid program.

This economic insecurity was made worse by unpredictable fluctuations in work hours. Although workers were typically assigned a fixed 40 hour schedule each week, it was not uncommon for them to be sent home during their shift (or even upon arriving) when demand was slack. With no advance warning about cuts in hours, it was difficult for workers to know how much they would earn each month and whether or not they could cover their bills.

Workers also brought up health and safety concerns. The entire fulfillment center was refrigerated to keep the food fresh, and workers said that working in the cold temperature all day made them more likely to get sick and experience ongoing respiratory issues. Workers also reported frequent injuries from the repetitive motions of preparing ingredients and lifting heavy boxes. And especially relevant in the #metoo era, some workers reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and sexual assault on the job.

Meal-kit companies set out to disrupt the American kitchen and have received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, our findings suggest that they failed to disrupt and instead are replicating the low-wage business model that dominates the food industry.

To be fair, in our study we only talked to workers at one meal-kit company. However, what we found is concerning enough that the industry needs closer scrutiny, especially as the numbers of workers it employs continues to grow. Many of us want to enjoy fresh, healthy meals. But a good food system is one that benefits not just consumers, but also the workers who grow, harvest, and prepare our food. So this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful not only for our convenient meal kits, but also for the workers who put them together.