Food Injustice: As American as Apple Pie

The good people at The Guardian just published this piece. Do check out the others by the excellent Nina Lakhani.

Resting on gingham cloth, a sugar-crusted apple pie cools on the window sill of a midwestern farmhouse. Nothing could be more American. Officially American. The Department of Defense once featured the pie in an online collection of American symbols, alongside Uncle Sam and cowboys.

Not that apples are particularly American. Apples were first domesticated in central Asia, making the journey along the Silk Road to the Mediterranean four thousand years ago. Apples traveled to the western hemisphere with Spanish colonists in the 1500s in what used to be called the Columbian Exchange, but is now better understood as a vast and ongoing genocide of Indigenous people.

Not that the recipe for apple pie is uniquely American. It’s a variant on an English pumpkin recipe. By the time the English colonized the new world, apple trees had become markers of civilization, which is to say property. In Virginia, apple trees were used to demonstrate to the state that land had been improved. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, took these markers of colonized property to the frontiers of US expansion where his trees stood as symbols that Indigenous communities had been extirpated.

Not that the sugar on the crust is uniquely American. Sugar cane was first brought to the US by Jesuits in 1751, but most US sugar remained an import until the Haitian revolution. When enslaved workers seized the French colony in 1791, European capitalists sought new sugar cane fields and workers. French merchants of sugar and slavery landed in Louisiana in the late 1700s. Within 50 years, the US produced a quarter of the world’s sugar cane, and New Orleans had become a concomitant hub of the slave trade. After emancipation, the economics of sugar shifted. The American civil war pushed the frontier of sugar westward. Hawaii’s sugar plantations grew during US Reconstruction. When the Philippines was a US colony between 1898 and 1946, Filipino workers were exempted from the “Asiatic barred zone”’ to work in the US sugar plantations in Hawaii, replacing more militant Japanese labourers.

Not that the gingham on which our apple pie rests is uniquely American. Columbus recorded cotton being used and worn during his first voyage by his Indigenous hosts. The gingham pattern likely originated in south-east Asia, the word deriving from the Malay genggang, a striped cloth that arrived in Europe as Europe colonized Asia. Cotton from India became central to the British East India Company, representing three-quarters of the corporation’s exports by 1766. As Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton tells, this war capitalism enslaved and committed acts of genocide against millions of Indigenous people in North America, and millions of Africans and their descendants through the transatlantic slave trade. In the process, cotton laid the basis of finance, police and government that made the United States.

Since this is quite a lot to acknowledge, it is easier to misremember. In the drama of nationalist culture, the bloody and international origins of the apple pie are subject to a collective amnesia. In the imagining of American community, the dish is transformed into a symbol of domesticity. By 1910, it’s possible for a theatre review to celebrate a wholesome play, “as American as apple pie”.

Commodity fetish

Guardian readers ought by now to be familiar with the exercise of undoing the commodity fetish. Scratch the surface of a bar of chocolate, a tuna sandwich, or even a chicken nugget, and you find the horrors of international trade: violence, exploitation, poverty and profit. Capitalist logic is everywhere the same, but countries are capitalist in their own ways. The apple pie is as American as stolen land, wealth and labour. We live its consequences today.

The legacy of the United States’ founding racial territorial conquest and domination can be read off the Department of Labor’s occupational data. In 2020, the whitest and most racially segregated job in this settler state was the appraising of property (96.5% of appraisers are white), and the second whitest was managing a farm (96.3%). It is hardly a coincidence that the largest farmland owner in the United States is one of the country’s richest men: Bill Gates.

In the United States, the legacy contradictions within the food system are particularly acute. Seven out of the 10 worst-paying jobs in America are in the food system, and women are overrepresented in them. Nearly a third of families headed by single mothers are likely to be food insecure, and food insecurity is systematically higher in communities of people of colour.

There has been a boom in the service industry over the past decade. Yet when that work is occasional or characterized by shift work as so much food service work is, you’re more likely to be hungry. In part, that’s because many precarious jobs are low-wage and depend on tipping. Tipping was a European feudal relic imported to the United States by the well-travelled Victorian-era American upper class. Initially, it was widely reviled. Even as late as 1905, it was possible to find restaurants in St Louis with signs in the window announcing “No tipping! Tipping is not American.”

Tipping stuck in the United States because it helped keep employers’ wage bill low, and fit with racist sentiments like those of journalist John Speed who wrote, “Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country is in the least justified in being in service.” The Pullman car company hired Black men from the south to work because “he is more adapted to wait on people and serve with a smile”. The minimum wage for tipped employees hasn’t increased since 1991 – it’s still $2.13 an hour.

Seven out of the 10 worst-paying jobs in America are in the food system, and women are over-represented in them

In part, that’s because the restaurant industry has always fought back. Herman Cain, the man who was co-chair of Black Voices for Trump until he attended a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and died of complications related to Covid-19, had a hand in undoing the legislation that tied the tipped wage to the minimum wage. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cain was chair of the National Restaurant Association, a group that activist Saru Jayaraman calls “the other NRA”.

The power of US trade associations extends not just to the domestic economy, but internationally. You can’t spell food industry without USTR, the United States trade representative, whose job it is to secure US business interests overseas. Through treaties at the World Trade Organization, and through Nafta, the US has done everything from generate an epidemic of diet-related disease in Mexico to decimate peasant food production in the global south. But the US is happy to blame the migrants fleeing the economic consequences of US agribusiness. And yet, the US continues to have a farm sector dependent on migrant labor.


The history of the US food system has always, however, been one of struggle. “Food justice” is a term that is intelligible only because oppressed and exploited communities have organized for redress against the predations of US capitalism. The US was made by finding ever lower labour costs, and workers always fought back. Food justice, and its opposite, are of a piece.

Consider the burger. America’s red meat republic has long been the arena for struggles for justice. This is true even within the most iconic job in beef production, the one featured alongside apple pie at the US Department of Defense’s greatest hits of American iconography: cowboys.

The American burger
The American burger. Photograph: NSphotostudio/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Although the myth of cowboys insists that they ranged alone, seldom hearing discouraging words, the truth was that they were exploited as a class and knew it. Wages were low and workers were frustrated by wage theft and underpayment. In 1883, they organized an illegal strike, one that spread from Texas to Wyoming. Timing their actions to the spring “harvest”, when investors were about to receive their profits, cowboys united to demand higher wages, better coffee, and the demand that cooks on the trail be paid as well as anyone else. For a while, they won, at least until 1888, when a combination of industry restructuring, anti-worker organizing by bosses, and brutal weather broke the back of worker militancy.

Further down the beef production chain, unions in Chicago’s squalid meatpacking industry were recruiting. In Upton Sinclair’sclassic 1907 novel The Jungle, workers aren’t passive amid the filth and horrors heaped upon them. They strike back. For a while, it even looked like they might win sweeping change. The final sentences are a hymn to the inevitability of socialism in Chicago.

Where the burger hit the table, hotel and portering unions were also in the fight. Tipping was resisted not just by those in the US who considered it an insidious European import. Workers read it correctly as an opportunity for bosses to lower wages. In 1911, the International Hotel Workers Union “demanded higher wages and no necessity of depending on tips”. When the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in 1925, in defiance of the Pullman Company, one of its first orders of business of this first Black trade union was to petition for a ban on tipping.

Unions grew under the New Deal, and won several victories for the hungry, and for farmers in the northern US. The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which introduced the minimum wage and overtime, was won at the zenith of the New Deal’s strike wave.

Food stamps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other New Deal legislation were, however, deeply flawed. Women’s access to the New Deal’s benefits were not federally recognized in the same way that men’s were. Professions in which Black people were overrepresented received fewer labour protections. Landowners, not sharecroppers in the south, received the benefits of federal largesse. Immigrants were deported in the 1930s to put America first.

In Texas, where Jim Crow laws discriminated against Mexican and Black people, injustices around race, gender and citizenship came together in the 1938 San Antonio pecan workers strike. The pecan industry needed cheap and nimble fingers to shell its products, and that meant that women were recruited for its underpaid piece-work, earning between 5 and 6 cents per pound of shelled nuts. When the Southern Pecan Shelling Company lowered the wage by a cent per pound, workers went on strike.

The US was made by finding ever lower labour costs, and workers always fought back. Food justice, and its opposite, are of a piece

Emma Tenayuca was the Indigenous Mexican American labour leader who helped organize a series of strike actions. As a member of the Communist party, she’d cut her teeth organizing against the border patrol’s beating of immigrants. The strike was the third attempt by workers to bring bosses to the table. The city’s political machine targeted the strikers’ soup kitchens and imprisoned strike leaders. The workers held out, broadening their demands for pay into wider demands for dignity. After over a month, the corporation agreed to arbitration, and a higher wage. Tenayuca put it like this: “What started out as a movement … for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum-wage law.”

The fight

Battles over food justice continue in the United States. A recent Guardian/Northwestern University investigation pointed to the persistent racial divide in the food system. In Texas, Black families reported hunger four times more often than white families, and in the week before Christmas 2020, 81 million people were food insecure.

Domestic food justice movements are finding new ways to link their struggles through the intersections of race and gender, just as the old struggles did. Activists such as William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign point to the legacies of slavery that live in the US practice of tipping, and are mounting campaigns against its iniquities, building a multiracial coalition in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr and Jesse Jackson. The Red Black Green New Deal portends a similar front for organizing.

It is clear, though, that tensions and imperfections and losses lie ahead. The US continues to spread its economic model internationally. While Joe Biden’s administration seems ready to infuse cash into the management of domestic hunger, internationally it’s agribusiness as usual. But as May Day reminds us, solidarity between workers need not be bounded by the nation state. The United States was made through global connections. It will be remade when those links are not ones of oppression, but ones of solidarity in the fight for food justice.

  • Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. He is currently working on a documentary and book about the future of the food system
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