Foodwork: Racialised, gendered and classed labours

Food appears to evaporate in academic and popular accounts of the imagined futures of work. To date, much of the commentary on the future of work centres on automation, platform work and the gig economy, but there is little discussion about how ‘foodwork’ might fit in these scenarios. This is the case, somewhat surprisingly, in studies of food delivery platforms where food workers – often racially minoritised women and men – and the food they make, are profoundly neglected. One of the reasons is that the ‘gig economy’, often understood as the future of work happening now, focuses on male dominated work such as Uber driving and Deliveroo couriering. But as feminists underline, the ‘gig economy’ is not so new for racially minoritised women and men. Indeed, as Miranda Hall writes “carers, nannies and cleaners are the ​original gig economy workers, excluded from basic labour protections, and subjected to forced flexibility and low wages long before we started using apps”.

A second reason is that foodwork, like other forms of reproductive labour – whether in the public or domestic domain – has been woefully under-valued, researched and theorised. To clarify, the term foodwork has been defined as “the physical, cognitive, interactional, and institutional labor in the processes of feeding individuals, families, and groups”. Explored in different ways in critical race and feminist literature, the concept captures the multiple labours of people of colour and white women across sites of production, planning, budgeting, procurement, preparation, cooking, consumption, digestion, cleaning up and waste. And as we argue elsewhere, such work is being extended and outsource to new domains.

We suggest that the future of food and the future of work need to be more closely connected through a feminist and critical race theoretical lens, and alongside others we call for more intersectional research on the inter-relations between labour, food and inequalities. In essence, this literature points to the power of corporations, histories of colonialism and racialisation, different kinds of labour including animal labour, racialised, gendered and classed inequalities, and how women’s work, health and lives are affected by how food is socially and economically organized. Building on our previous work, including symposia on foodwork we suggest that the current neglect of intersectional food studies creates a significant lacuna in how we approach the future of food and work.

 Lynne Pettinger argues in What’s wrong with Work? that despite the four decades of feminist critique that what counts as work needs to include reproductive work, this contribution has not really been integrated into critical discussions of the future of work. We argue that a gendered, classed and racialised analysis of foodwork which forms the basis of a growing academic field shifts our perspectives on the future of work that has been dominated by ungendered and unracialised discussions of digitisation and automation. As Lydia Medland et al suggest, certain dimensions of the future of work are foregrounded whilst re-organizing the work of social reproduction is marginalized: ‘AI and robotisation, capture futuristic imaginaries, attention and financial support’.

Intersectional food studies are often published in specialised food and feminist journals which are not on the radar of future of work theorists and which are consequentially sidelined by the metrics of contemporary publishing markets. In turn, we argue that we need to give more attention and resources to intersectional food studies to re-imagine the future of work. The politics, concepts and theories in intersectional food studies should be central to analyses beyond the feminist debates and journals to which they continue to be confined. Scholars and public intellectuals debating the future of work need to engage with this scholarship which feminists have been labouring on. Accordingly, in this summary, we briefly introduce feminist and critical race studies of foodwork in the public and private spheres in turn. This rich archive foregrounds the working lives and inequalities of minoritised workers in the global food system and underscores its unsustainability. We argue that deploying a gendered, classed and racialised lens on foodwork highlights not just the profound exploitation of workers in the global agrifood business and service work, but sheds significant light on how food sustainability discourses create new gendered, classed and racialised hierarchies of foodwork in the domestic and public spheres.

Studying foodwork from a critical race feminist perspective enables us to challenge definitions of what constitutes work, binaries of productive and reproductive work, and to illuminate organisational mechanisms, practices and processes, and how these produce hierarchies and inequalities. In so doing, we can challenge current thinking on what constitutes the economy and how life is sustained.

Even in the future of work, people will need to eat. Feminists’ hope that new technologies could bypass foodwork animated domestic science and utopian science fiction writing from as early as the late 19th century. In her dystopian satirical novel The Republic of the Future (1887) set in New York in 2050, Anna Dodd imagined a nutritiously manufactured meal-in-a-pill delivered by pneumatic tubes to kitchenless apartments that could liberate servants (and their mistresses) from the drudgery of cooking three meals a day. In contrast, it is industrial farming that has arguably most drastically and brutally changed food production and consumption. Yet we still know very little about who grows our food, who picks, processes and packs, and who gets to eat what.

What critical race feminists tell us is that “exploitative relations underlie the entire food system, from the farm all the way to the table”. With environmental catastrophes on the horizon, understanding how existing forms of exploitation in the industrialised food system will be exacerbated and transformed by these conditions will be critical to our food futures.

Paid foodwork in the public domain

Women and men of colour dominate the food system at each stage of food production: processing, distribution, retailing, marketing and food service; in large scale industrial farms, small urban gardens, processing plants, markets, grocery shops and supermarkets, fast food and restaurants; and schools, hotels, hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes.

They farm, cook, serve, pack, stock shelves, wait on tables. Lower and middle-class white women are more likely to work in middle class professions such as marketing, food technology and domestic science. Within each occupation in food corporations, scientific organisations and government, there is a gendered, racialised and classed hierarchy of labour and power, underpinned too by migration status.  

Globally, food workers are paid poverty wages, do not receive health insurance or paid sick days, and suffer high rates of occupational illnesses and injuries. Many food workers are not paid enough to feed their families. Critical race food scholars interested in labour rights and food justice stress that we must not ignore the effects of the racialised dimensions of food labour. The racialised inequalities in the production, distribution, and consumption of food are profound, with people of colour dispossessed of their access to the means of producing food and disproportionately lacking access to healthy food, their families often going hungry as a result. Most farmers in the US are white, and most farm workers people of colour and often immigrants, who are forced into doing the worst hazardous jobs, and women subject to sexual violence.

Patricia Allen and Carolyn Sachs have shown that women are overrepresented in low-wage food work and under-represented in food management and science. But importantly, race and class structure the vertical and horizontal division of food labour, with racially minoritised women disproportionately positioned in dirty, low status, low paid work. Moreover, many of these minoritised women undertake food labour that previously was performed in the domestic sphere and has been outsourced to industry. Accordingly, white middle-class women’s food labour is transferred from the home to poor women of color, who prepare food in processing plants, grocery stores, and restaurants. White women tend to be concentrated in public interactive work and by contrast, women of colour disproportionately represented in dirty, back room jobs as Evelyn Nakano Glenn influentially demonstrated.

These exploitative relations not only derive from contemporary shifts in global capitalism’s structures of governance but have histories in the colonial roots of racism and sexism. Capitalism relies on exploitative relations of marginalised labour, such as migrants, and illegal migrants. National governments and companies reproduce the flexibilisation of employment practices, increase individual workload and worker productivity, maintain artificially low wages, and change labour laws. Part of the structural organisation of this work comes from immigration policies, and a feminisation of agricultural work, where corporations and farmers target immigrant women and mothers. Managers from multinationals, producers, and retailers deploy practices to subjugate people of colour, indigenous peoples and poor people economically, socially and health-wise.

Workers face hazardous, and abusive working conditions including pesticide poisoning, repetitive motion injury, heat stroke, long hours heavy work, dangerous equipment, and dehydration, all of which harm them and benefit corporations and consumers. Part of the structural organisation of this work comes from immigration policies, and a feminisation of agricultural work, where corporations and farmers target immigrant women and mothers. In essence, workers are disposable, and find it difficult to challenge their working and living conditions. There is a deepening of the feminisation of labour and of poverty, although women experience differential labour practices and inequalities by race, class, age and able-bodiedness across the food system. Writing about Black and immigrant Latina women poultry plant workers in the US, Carrie Freshour argues that the social reproduction of lower or middle-class women is prioritised by policy makers over ‘unprotected’ workers in agrifood. Global economic restructuring, the roll back of the welfare state, and working conditions, mean that the minoritised workforce find it really hard to do their family foodwork. Freshour shows they have to undertake intensive foodwork including cooking huge batches on the weekend, planning meals while at work, and during breaks, and sharing recipes and ideas with each other. The organisation of this industry depends upon a permanently casualised, racialised and gendered labour force that in turn experiences the worse effects of the crisis of social reproduction, with no social services left to fall back on.

Domestic foodwork

The term foodwork builds on and extends Marjorie Devault’s pioneering work on unpaid feeding work by women in the home. Devault’s study was foundational not just in revealing how multifaceted, time-intensive, relentless and complex reproductive food labour is but importantly was critical in naming the invisibility of this labour. For instance, shopping requires budgeting, meal planning, travel to and from shops, price comparison, ingredient substitution, and unpacking and sorting. Women need to know their families’ food preferences, allergies, intolerances, special diets, health and dietary needs and desires. Feeding work requires repetitive physical labour and creative work such as adapting recipes to meet family needs and may include babies, toddlers, teenagers, older people, and people who are sick. Women also engage in extensive emotional work in socialising children into eating, food etiquette, and mediating families’ food desires and requirements including, in heterosexual relationships, those of their male partners. In extending the notion of labour to the domestic sphere, feminists insisted that that this work is economically, socially and culturally under-valued –even sometimes derided – but absolutely indispensable. This labour is socially and biologically essential to the maintenance of everyday life and the ongoing renewal of the productive labour force, the household, community and capitalism.

Domestic foodwork is being transformed through increasing impoverishment of women, and intensified health and ethical expectations, creating new types of labour and inequalities, reinforcing gender, race, class and heteronormative hierarchies. Thus, as a result of transformations in the food system, food policy and food health, women are incited to take on board complicated prescriptions on nutrition, health, food waste, environmentalism and food safety, many of which are based on narrow racialised, cultural and classed knowledges. These prescriptions circulate in food and health media, popular culture, and public health creating extra burdens for maternal feeding work, for low income white women but especially for women of colour as Black geographer Naya Jones shows. Indeed, in many societies, “good mothering is now synonymous with intensive food labour which many women don’t have the resources to enact“. And women seeking asylum don’t even have the facilities or budget to do any kind of foodwork for themselves or their children[i]

Women are expected to keep their children healthy and safe, and to produce healthy citizens, through incitations to buy healthy, organic and local foods, even though their meanings, and the ethics of their production, are not so straightforward. For instance, many poorly-paid farm-workers, often women of colour, can’t afford to buy fresh locally sourced food. These circulating moralised foodwork standards are cruelly inaccessible for women on low budgets.  For women experiencing poverty their food labour is intensified as they provide for their families, drawing on complex, detailed and extensive knowledges about budgets, brands, family preferences, special offers on food, minimising waste, shopping around and reducing transport costs. The stress, stigmatisation and burden of hegemonic healthism on women of colour and women on low budgets cannot be underestimated.  

Food sustainability is creating new gendered, classed and racialised moral imperatives and pressures. While white middle-classes take on certain kinds of sustainable and healthy food practices such as eating local, unprocessed, organic food they are able to draw on these practices as cultural distinction and distance themselves from ‘unhealthy Others’. Alternative food consumers may express reverence for alternative food workers, but they care much less about industrial farmworkers, food service and retail workers and their working conditions. Alternative food consumption discourses rely on fantasies where “the agrarian past is romanticized which in reality is marked by exploitative, racist, and patriarchal land and labor relations“. Writing specifically about fair trade in Darjeeling tea plantations, Sarah Besky and Sandy Brown argue its neoliberal ideology has weakened trade unions and regulations which protected workers from exploitation by plantation owners. At the same time, alternative food practices of women of colour such as growing their own food, saving seeds, collective cooking, and hunting are not recognised or valued as sustainable food practices. What we refer to as ‘sustainable foodwork’ – managing domestic food waste, growing food and shopping from alternative food systems – requires more labour intensive practices and add to women’s already overburdened foodwork and represent individualised solutions to reforming industrial food systems.

This extensive qualitative scholarship documents that sustainability discourses and practices play a key role in the reproduction of racialised, gendered and classed inequalities, yet these insights are often disconnected from the analysis of inequalities that characterize the global industrialized food system. A trend of intensification of women’s paid and unpaid foodwork is evident across racialised, class and migration status – whether in labour extended to make the food budget go further, or labour required to comply with intensive healthist mothering. Yet few studies comment on how it is marginalised women’s foodwork that is consistently attributed little social, economic or symbolic value. Yet these insights are crucial for developing analyses of food sustainability and work that are attentive to the margins.

Food Futures

Critical race feminist theorists insist that we need to analyse race-related systems of power. They emphasize the relations of white supremacy, colonisation, and racialised exploitation and discrimination in the production, distribution and consumption of food. Such theories challenge the ‘invisibilisation’ of women of colour’s complex relations to food systems, and as food authorities in food production, activism and justice. In particular, they chart the effects of the corporatisation and industrialisation of food agriculture on the environment, and of global south women’s collective resistance to these processes. This racialised lens is needed to understand global food production and consumption but also to show how food activism and food media in the global north are structured by whiteness and classism. This racialised lens is backgrounded in most analyses of the future of food work in public, policy discourse and academic discussions of the future of food.

We call for more intersectional feminist studies on food and work, building on previous conference streams, symposia and a forthcoming special themed section of Gender, Work and Organization. Research on the future of work needs to discuss how foodwork reproduces and reconfigures racialised, gendered and classed inequalities. Not only do these studies challenge the binaries of productive/reproductive work, formal/informal economy and document the depletion that results from women’s extensive and intensive food labours ; they also offer visions for a future of work where attention to humans and non-human others would be centralised, and perhaps nourished. Our call foregrounds an understanding of foodwork as a site of gendered, racialised and classed oppression, exploitation and disadvantage but also of agency, empowerment and pleasure, where women resist and transform gendered, racialised and classed ideologies. Accordingly, we’re recommending a reinvigoration of the feminist tradition of making women’s hidden work visible through studying foodwork with a renewed commitment to intersectional research.

Our hope is that by foregrounding structural racialised and gendered inequalities and hierarchies in foodwork, we can develop new research agendas and catalyse forms of activism to make the food system more sustainable and just. We echo Silvia Federici’s call for a global food movement that centres the multiple absences: “of access to land, lack of money, space and time (to shop, cook, and learn about the conditions of production of what we eat)” as the main obstacles to food justice. Furthermore, critical race feminist perspectives will be vital for evaluating expertise, regulatory practices foodwork technologies and science, now and in the future, from so called smart kitchens, biotechnologies, genetically engineered animals and in vitro meat sensory science, gut microbiome science and metabolic food waste techniques

As feminists have shown food technologies have often meant more work for mother. The profound neglect (or wilful ignorance) of critical race feminist food studies, and women of colour and Indigenous women’s knowledge, expertise and lived experience undermines how scholars and policy makers conceptualise food, and its place in transformations to paid and unpaid labour, and severely limits our capacity to intervene in gendered, classed and racialised and non-human inequality, oppression, exploitation and discrimination.

Elaine Swan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sussex, where she is part of the Future of Work research hub

Maud Perrier is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, where she is based in the School of Sociology, Politics And International Studies

Image credit: Working in Paterson Project collection, 1993-2002 (AFC 1995/028), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress


This article draws on our previous work and a forthcoming chapter by Elaine Swan (2020) Not Making a Meal of It: Critical Race Feminist Studies of Food, Work and Organising in Kelan, E., Liu, H. Özkazanç-Pan, B. and Pullen, A (eds) Routledge Handbook of Gender, Work and Organisation. Because of the nature of the blog, we weren’t able to include in text references to critical race and feminist scholarship but we appreciate the work of the editors in enabling us to hyperlink to some key authors.

[i] Reynolds, T. (2018) ‘Foodwork and motherwork:  strategies contesting inequalities by Black and racialised migrant mothers’ Paper presented at FoodWork: Classed, Racialized and Gendered Labours’ University of Sussex, 26th November 2018.