November 24-30, 2014
We’re celebrating Food Workers Week on this edition of Food List, giving thanks to the many, many hardworking folks who bring us our daily meal.
With Thanksgiving upon us, author and food activist Anna Lappé considers the food workers and how our choices for organic food affects not just the health of our own families, but also the health and well being of people across the food chain.
From Civil Eats, we’ll hear from grocery store employees who’s hard work goes unappreciated by multinational grocery store chains. We’ll also explore the true cost of cheap shrimp—slave labor—from our friends at Grace Communications.
Luckily, with challenges come solutions. San Francisco’s Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, highlights the importance of regional food systems. Likewise, James Beard award-winning chef Rob Corliss provides a toolbox for being a culinary steward.
Perhaps more than any other week this year, food is on our mind. Particularly for me this year as 17 friends and family will descend on Thursday for Thanksgiving. But I’m not just thinking about the food I’ll serve — and how it’ll all fit in my tiny oven — I’m thinking about all the workers who helped to bring that food to our family.
As we celebrate International Food Worker Week this year, I’m thinking in particular about how the choice for organic food affects not just the health of my family, but the health and well being of people across the food chain who I’ll never meet and never know, but whose lives I’m connected to nonetheless.
When I talk to audiences across the country about healthy eating, one question comes up more frequently than any other: Is choosing organic food better for my health? The science is pretty settled about the differences in pesticide residues between non-organic and organic food. The President’s Panel on Cancer, a few years ago, even suggested that one of the best ways to prevent certain forms of cancer is to choose food grown without chemicals, including many that are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors or neurotoxins.
But even more important to me is what choosing organic–or food grown with fewer toxic pesticides and natural fertilizer–means for workers along the food chain and working class communities around the country. Farmers and farmworkers, more than anyone else in this country, are impacted by the widespread use of agricultural chemicals in the fields. In the longest running study to date of farmworker children, researchers of farmworkers in California’s Salinas Valley, including pregnant women, who are exposed daily to an arsenal of toxic chemicals, found that their children had higher rates of neurodevelopmental problems and other health issues related to chemical exposure.
Working class communities are among the most affected by agricultural chemical and synthetic fertilizer production. Consider the working class families in West, Texas where 15 people were killed and 160 injured when a chemical plant, producing synthetic fertilizer for non-organic farms, exploded last year. Or the families living in the shadows of the manufacturing plants producing the toxic chemicals used on non-organic and GMO fields. Like Dow Chemical’s neighbors in Midland, Michigan where pollution from the plant has created the highest level of the carcinogen dioxin in waterways ever recorded by the EPA anywhere in the country. (Dow, keep in mind, is not only one of the largest agricultural chemical producers; it’s big in the GMO market too: the company just pushed for approval on a new GMO engineered to be resistant to its toxic defoliant 2,4-D).
When we fight for organic food and getting agricultural chemicals off our fields, we do so not just for our own health. We do so for food workers, too. This year, when I serve our (mostly) organic and (mostly) local Thanksgiving feast, I’ll do so because I don’t want to feed my loved ones food that caused another mother or father to worry about whether the chemicals used to grow that food had made their children sick, stunted their intelligence, or planted the seed of cancer in their bodies.
Anna Lappé is a widely respected author and educator, known for her work as an expert on food systems and as a sustainable food advocate. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to ten others, Anna’s work has been widely translated internationally and featured in The New York Times,Gourmet,Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets. Named one of Time magazine’s “eco” Who’s-Who, Anna is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund. She is currently the head of the Real Food Media Project, a new initiative to spread the story of the power of sustainable food using creative movies, an online action center, and grassroots events.
Kitchen incubators help entrepreneurs launch, grow and formalize food businesses, which can provide real asset generation for their families.
La Cocina provides affordable commercial kitchen space and technical assistance to low-income and immigrant women entrepreneurs growing their own food business. Their slogan: “El Perfecto Sabor es Cocinar con amor”. The perfect flavor is cooked with love.
Not only do they supply space from which to launch that dream but also support a vibrant community of fellow entrepreneurs. They believe everyone has the talent and capacity to build a successful food business. La Cocina is located in San Francisco’s Mission District, an ethnically diverse and economically vulnerable neighborhood. Food lies at the heart of this community. You don’t have to look far to find hidden entrepreneurs in the kitchens of many homes.
Meet Heriberto, Carlos, Angela, Teresa, and Antonio. All of them live and work in the Hudson Valley of New York. They shared their stories with two of Rural and Migrant Ministry’s college interns, Lisa and Steven, in the summer of 2014, with the trust that we would amplify their voices and bring awareness to the conditions on modern-day small farms in New York.
This is part one of a five-part series entitled Farm Worker Stories: An Oral History of the Farm Workers of New York. Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. (RMM) is a non-sectarian non-profit with an over 30-year history of nurturing leadership in rural New York State through programs of youth empowerment, education, and accompaniment of workers. RMM hopes that these films can be used as a tool to amplify the voices of farmworkers, who often go unheard.
The workers in the food industry are an important aspect of where our food comes from. Kristin Reynolds, professor of Environmental Studies at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City, explains current inequities in our system and describes that the solutions are multifaceted, involving more than educated consumers.
Q: Could you define some examples of the inequities in the food labor industry?
One example is that of workers in the restaurant industry. A great booklet called “Behind the kitchen door” documented income disparities among restaurant workers. It focused on the fact that white males had by far the highest income levels within the restaurant sector compared to undocumented workers of color coming from different countries who are often very low paid and not able to afford health insurance.
Another example is farm workers. 90% of the farm laborers in the United States are immigrants. A great number of those are undocumented, are very low paid and in some cases are actually kept in slavery conditions. This is an example of food injustice that the food justice framework tries to address from a structural level, thinking about the policies related to agriculture, to labor standards and wages, to supermarket siting and some of the social structures that we have in our society that reinforce a lot of these inequities.
Q: When you look at urban farming, what is the model that you envision?
One thing about urban agriculture that is often brought up is the idea of feeding the city. It’s important to clarify that urban agriculture practitioners are not attempting to replace the rural food system.
Beyond the productive aspect of urban agriculture, there are many other benefits that aren’t only related to food production and consumption. There are a lot of educational benefits of urban agriculture, including teaching young children about the environment, educating youth about job skills and responsibility and workforce reentry programs for people who have been incarcerated. There can be economic benefits in terms of job creation in communities where there aren’t very many jobs. Organizations are beginning to create jobs that provide a modest salary or stipend that’s very helpful to families that have very low incomes.
Q: How do consumers make value based purchasing decisions when they buy food?
I think that those who have higher incomes, have more time available, and live in the right neighborhoods are probably able to access information. That information is less available to folks who don’t have a farmers’ market in their neighborhood, who can’t afford to shop at a farmers’ market, or who don’t live in a city that has a burgeoning food movement. Folks that don’t have the available time, income and geographic access aren’t as able to get that information. But I think it’s also important to note that the educated consumer is not necessarily going to cause all of the changes that need to happen in the food system. To just rely upon people knowing information is to absolve government and the market system from responsibility for providing a more sustainable and a more equitable food system. For example, I’m quite educated about many things in the food system, but there are some things that I wish were different. I can’t just choose to give a farm worker 10 dollars for the strawberries that I purchased, even though I know that those strawberries are probably produced by people who are being underpaid. There is a lot of information out there, but on a broader, structural level we need to be thinking beyond just educating consumers, but also about changing the structure of the food system.
Q: There have been examples of consumers making industries shift their practices simply by purchasing what they believed in. Do you feel that consumers have that power?
I do think that consumers have that power. But I’m arguing that sustainability must include justice. The concept of just sustainability is one that includes in the sustainability framework not only the ecological and economic components of the system, but also the social justice components. And so, I agree with you, consumers have been able to leverage changes within our food system, but they haven’t leveraged all of the changes. I don’t believe that the market will make some of those changes without advocacy and pressure. An example of this that does relate to justice is a group called The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that has run a couple of campaigns in conjunction with workers in Immokalee, Florida who have been severely underpaid. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has run boycotts of a couple of different fast foods and grocery chains to put pressure on them to raise their prices by a very modest amount in order to give better wages to the farm workers. So I think that there are isolated instances of consumer pressure making changes in the food system and I think that it’s important to also think about the larger structural issues. So if we think about cage free eggs, we’re also thinking about who’s actually handling those chickens. Are we satisfied as a culture of consumers to have cage-free eggs that are handled by exploited farm workers? The argument that I’m making is that if we’re trying to think about sustainability, we need to encompass all of these aspects, and not just one part of it.
Kristin Reynolds is a faculty member in the Environmental Studies and Food Studies Program at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City. Much of her work centers on urban agriculture and food justice, thinking about food justice as a way to think about the politics and the social constructions that produce inequities in the food system. She’s been involved with a number of different research projects documenting urban agriculture in New York City and also in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently working on a book that focuses on urban agriculture and social justice activism in New York City.
Maria Bravo was an office worker at Birdseye Foods for 20 years before the plant closed in 2003. Maria Bravo’s grandfather was a farmer and her father spent part of his life as a sharecropper. After 20 years working in one job, she couldn’t imagine herself embarking on a new career but then she heard about ALBA. They gave her a half acre plot. With help from her father-in-law and daughter (she helped seed), Maria Bravo put her faith in Mother Nature and became a farmer.
The Agriculture and Land-based Training Association, ALBA, provides land and guidance for aspiring farms and farm workers interested in growing and selling their own organic crops. Farmers are trained in organic farm production, marketing, record-keeping, labor practices, pest management, and other skillsets required for running a small farm business.
Millions of food workers around the world struggle to make a living each day. In the U.S. alone, nearly 20 million people work in the food system, growing, processing, transporting, serving, cooking, & selling the food that we eat each day. The food system is the largest employer in the U.S., and the majority of frontline food workers earn poverty wages. In the U.S., a third of food workers suffer from food insecurity and hunger.
But we depend on these workers for the food on our tables. Check out these videos of some everyday food worker heroes by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Meet Constantine, a street food vendor and a leader of the Street Vendor Project.
“In a horrifying exposé, the Guardian recently announced the results of a six-month investigation into Thailand’s fishing industry, revealing a vast slave trade that enables shrimp to be sold worldwide at low cost – at the expense of human lives. The story is distressingly common – the majority of the 300,000 people working in the Thai fishing industry are these slave laborers.
Each day, millions of Bay Area residents shop at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, cook meals at home, dine at restaurants and compost their food waste. Individually, their food choices impact the taste of their food, their pocketbooks and their health.
Have you ever bought groceries from a checker with the sniffles? If so, you’re probably not alone. In fact, most food retail employees can’t afford to miss work when they’re under the weather. Many don’t have medical coverage and few can cover lost wages when taking unexpected time off.
We are seeing a greater emphasis being placed on our food & menus – its origins, its composition and its flavor. Chefs are driving innovation and challenging consumer palates and in turn, consumers are demanding higher quality/bigger flavor at an affordable price. This convergence has seen local become mainstream, fine dining chefs go casual, food trucks become a sought after experience, the explosion of the fast-casual dining segment, upgrades in QSR and the overall shortening of the flavor trend adoption cycle.
Our value system is changing with what we currently expect and will expect from culinarians across all segments of foodservice; in regards to a shift to fresher/local/seasonal/higher quality/made from scratch foods. Foodservice workers will need to evolve to match the increased quality and base level skills for this evolution in food. Our food chain dynamics are changing.
How chefs and operators choose to adapt to these changes will reflect in their overall growth and success. Training will have to be addressed and revamped, as you look at how to effectively grow as a chef, train future culinarians & position your operation for the future. Embracing a holistic approach, encompassing focused & inspired standards & systems for coaching, are the key to growth.
Here is a “holistic toolbox” for your personal call to action, as your operation perpetually navigates the changing landscape. This terrain goes beyond cooking – it is culinary with stewardship.
Relationships (critical to the business model)
Sourcing (quality ingredients net quality output)
o Regional & global cues
Training/Education (top to bottom are vested and on the same path)
o The Operation
Menus (your communication tool & essence)
o Seasonal cues & implementation
o Entice & engage with menu verbiage
o Online information: sources & stories for your partner farms & artisans. Nutritionals
o Scratch cooking, where feasible
o Create excitement around FLAVOR!!!
o Craveable, indulgent healthy, wholesome food! – YES, healthy can & should taste great!!!
o Quicker menu development cycles
o Allergen awareness
o Upgrade kids offerings – break free from the status quo
o Create & serve food that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have access to affordable, craveable wholesome food
Trends (What to disseminate)
o Staying current, while relevant with your target market/demographic
o Immerse in the world around you
o Produce actionable insights
Chef Rob Corliss is a 3x James Beard House guest chef with over 20+ years of experience across multi-disciplines that include running world class resort hotels, launching new restaurant concepts, working in top foodservice marketing agencies and currently owning his own culinary consulting company ATE. With an energizing passion for food ATE is focused on flavor innovation; with the daily goal of connecting people to their food, environment & wellness.
Someone who has embraced street food and seeks out food carts, food trucks, and anything they can eat on the street is a cartivore.
What’s Brett’s formula for creating a healthy food cart culture like Portland’s? It includes a progressive interpretation of food vending laws, a strict enforcement of health codes, an abundance of private land (in this case, parking lots), an abundance of discarded Aloha hunting trailers, warm summers and mild winters, and voracious foodies.
“I love the feeling of providing people with nutrition and sustenance. Offering wholesome, locally sourced food feels very nurturing.”
John’s delicious ingredients come form local, sustainable farms.
John says, “Since I was planning to make all the food myself, it seemed apt to build the cart myself, too.” It took two years. I had always wanted to build a house, to know how a roof is shingled, how a floor is nailed down, how siding is put up and made leak free, how electrical and gas lines are installed. That’s always appealed to me probably because I’m a little obsessive compulsive. The building took on a life of it’s own; the desire tofinish faded and the desire to make each detail just right took over. A lot of other carts have a commissary, which is an off-site kitchen, but I wanted to be able to do everything in the cart itself, so it has pretty good storage + 2 ovens + a proofer + a big fridge.
Founded in July 2009, the Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.
Members of Food Chain Workers Alliance created a comic book focused on food workers in order to illustrate the issues facing these workers, as well as their efforts to organize to improve their workplaces, their communities, and the food system. The book uses examples drawn from real experiences by workers in their respective industries: production, processing, distribution, retail, and food service. It is the story of a struggle to victory! Read the comic.
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