Do You Eat Ethically?

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with GFTEI or Korbel! Instead, it relates to an event I recently attended in Denver which I believe included important lessons for everyone who eats out in America today. Let me know what you think…

Do you eat ethically? If you live in Colorado, the health nut heaven of America, where our love of all things organic and locally-sourced is inversely matched only by the smallness of our waists, chances are you care a lot more than the average American about the ethical quality of your food: whether it is locally sourced, organic, humanely-raised, sustainable, and most of all, makes you feel good.

Case in point: in 2010, Boulder was named “America’s Foodiest Town” on the basis of it having, among other things, “quality farmers’ markets, concerned farmers, dedicated food media, first-rate restaurants, talented food artisans, and a community of food lovers.”

In Boulder, and indeed all over Colorado, it is hard not to be bombarded when perusing a menu (if you happen to be lucky enough to be a middle-class person with disposable income to spend on good food) with head-spinning descriptions of how ethical, how healthy, how spiritually wonderful, your meal is going to be.

One might feel relatively satisfied by simply mustering the ability to choose what to eat from among these at times elaborate choices. Let’s imagine that once you’ve made your selection, you chose ethical food, by all the typical foodie standards. But having done so, can you be satisfied you are really eating ethically? This is the question that Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC-United) poses in her new book, “Behind the Kitchen Door.”

Jayaraman, a Yale law graduate who founded ROC 12 years ago, is blowing the lid off the reality of the restaurant industry, currently the fastest growing sector of the US economy in terms of employment. Beyond the certificates telling us our restaurants are health and safety certified, and our menus are ethical, there is a grubby situation behind the kitchen door.

And it’s a reality that you should be concerned about whether you are care about workers rights, or just about your own health. Which is what makes Jayaraman’s organization, her book, and her infectious verve so exciting – it’s got such potential. Potential to change the lives of the over 20 million people (1 in 10 workers) in this sector if it succeeds, and a significant chance to in fact succeed, because it appeals to both progressives and to those who just like to eat.

As Jayaraman pointed out during a recent visit to Denver to speak at an event organised by Colorado Jobs With Justice, the fact that restaurants are working extremely hard to cater to the foodie market did not happen overnight. It was a result of the release of several books and documentaries that lit a spark under the national foodie conscience. In so doing, “ethical” food became a permanent part of a modern foodie’s lexicon. Books/documentaries like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2003), Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) played a huge part in this.

One of the most compelling components of Jayaraman’s argument for restaurant workers’ rights builds on this sea change in consumer preferences.  It’s the idea that if we care about the chickens, pigs and vegetables that become our dinners, we should care about the hands that prepare them and serve them: about the bussers, servers and others who are behind the kitchen doors.

The facts of their situation are shocking: The federal minimum wage for “tipped” restaurant workers has remained at $2.13 per hour for the past 22 years (the federal minimum wage for non-tipped workers is $7.25). This means it has not even risen in line with inflation (so essentially, it has decreased). Worse still, workers oftentimes do not make the tips necessary to make up the difference since 1 in 5  do not receive the tips that are owed to them – the tips that are supposed to make up the majority of their salary. Paid sick days are a benefit not enjoyed by 90% of those who work in the sector. Segregation is also rampant in the industry, with white workers twice as likely to get (somewhat better paid) jobs as servers than Latino or black workers.

What all of these statistics equate to is “incredible poverty” among those working in the industry. In fact, says Jayaraman, restaurant workers suffer poverty at three times the rate of other workers, and are twice as likely to use food stamps. This inability to make a “living wage” and the lack of paid sick days also means a greater likelihood that those who are sick are going to be forced to come to work anyway (because they can’t afford not to), and pass their germs on to you via your dinner which they are preparing.

This unsavoury reality reflects the powerful lobbying influence of the National Restaurant Association (the “other NRA”!), ROC’s main opponent in its fight for restaurant workers’ rights. In 1996, when Herman Cain (remember him?) took over as President of the NRA, he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In so doing, the Pizzaman’s enduring legacy became the ongoing  economic injustice meted out to restaurant workers nationwide: In exchange for a federal increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled from the “regular” version. The result: despite occasional increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped version hasn’t changed since 1991. Consequently, recent talk by President Obama of raising the minimum wage would have no effect on restaurant workers even if it were to be acted upon.

For the last 12 years, ROC has been working on building the “groundswell” which they see is now needed to overcome the influence of the NRA and get congress to recognize restaurant workers’ fundamental rights to decent working conditions via legislation. Their innovative efforts, which include producing a diner’s guide to ethical eating (available in smart phone app form to help you find ethical eateries), have been met with major victories, as well as a backlash from the NRA, which Jayaraman says only adds further validity to ROC’s mission.

“It’s clear they don’t have anything legitimate to say about raising the tipped wage from $2.13, and are therefore trying to attack us as individuals,” said Jayaraman, who recently appeared as a guest on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, and found the NRA refused to send a representative to appear along side her to respond.

Whether it’s the realisation that those who are putting food on your table may not have the means to put food on their own, or simply the cringe that crosses your face when you think about the hands of a sick worker preparing your food which urges you to action, Jayaraman recommends several practical steps that each of us can take to begin to address this disturbing scenario.

When you eat out, you can choose to select restaurants that are truly ethical using ROC’s Dining Guide. Perhaps more efficaciously, as a paying customer you can choose to say something to managers at restaurants which aren’t. Jayaraman recommends approaching them with the following: “I loved your food, I love your service, what I’d really love to see is the opportunity for some of your Latino bussers to work as servers. Or for your employees to receive paid sick days…”. While this might not elicit an immediate reaction, “if a manager were to hear it 10-15 times a week, he would definitely start to think about it,” suggests Jayaraman. You can also pressure your elected representatives to support raising the tipped minimum wage and paid sick days for restaurant workers. As Jayaraman tells us, as consumers we “don’t just hold forks when we eat, we hold incredible power.”

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Posted on March 10, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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