Chewing on Food Justice in San Francisco–Fruits of Our Labor

Originally posted on the Pursue blog.

It was 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday night and already a line had formed outside the Local: Mission Eatery, the four month old restaurant founded by Yaron Milgrom-Elcott. Dinner wasn’t served on this chilly summer evening. Instead guests were sampling a chilled avocado soup, bread, olive oil, almonds, and tangy deviled eggs. For once, the food was not the focus of the restaurant, but instead guests turned their attention to the panel of speakers who discussed food justice, or the lack thereof.

In addition to the restaurant’s owner the panel included Ron Strochlic, independent consultant for just and sustainable food systems and former Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies and Sandy Brown, Vice President of Swanton Berry Farm (the first organic farm to use United Farm Worker labor).

Yaron spoke of the challenge he faces paying all his workers a fair wage while charging a fair price for customers. The restaurant menu declares that everything is “Entirely local. Humane and housemade.” He doesn’t stop there. Bathroom towels are cloth, all staff members including servers and kitchen staff are included in menu meetings, and only the chef and sous chef are exempt from overtime (all other staff are paid time and a half on the rare occasions that they work more than eight hours a day). “Is this model replicable?” asked moderator Heidi Winig. Yaron replied that his restaurant has only been open for four months and that he is not competing with lower priced restaurants. He intentionally designed his restaurant so that he could hire as few employees as possible, so that he could pay them all fairly.

The same question was asked of the other panelists. Sandy responded that Swanton Berry farms was the cheapest choice for strawberries at farmers markets, but that they are still more expensive than the clamshell boxed berry choices at grocery stores such as Whole Foods. Despite having a labor cost 30 percent  higher than that of comparable berry farms, Swanton offers slightly cheaper prices than organic non-unionized farms. Does membership in the UFW afford workers a higher wage? Generally not, but it does afford them benefits, health care, increased opportunities to work year round, and a platform for voicing grievances. Sandy said that undocumented farmworkers are reluctant to protest because they fear that law enforcement may deport them. This, she said, is a major injustice for food workers.

Sandy was not alone in her concern for farm and food workers. “Labor is at the bottom of the food chain.” said Ron. “People are used to the cheap cost of food. Educate people who can afford to pay more about why they should get sustainable food.” Ron urged the audience to include food servers at fast food chains as part of social sustainability in food production. Larger corporations such as Wal-Mart have sustainability initiatives. But Ron maintained that Wal-Mart participates in sustainability initiatives purely out of self-interest in order to gain conscientious consumers who have traditionally boycotted the mega store. When asked what we can do to make a difference, Ron noted that the consumer is very powerful. But Sandy said she thinks consumer politics is not enough to improve farm worker conditions.

So what can you do? Ask about the working conditions of farmers when you go to farmers markets. Support establishments that are treating workers fairly and places where you can see workers (visible kitchens in restaurants). Make donations to micro lending organizations instead of giving gifts. Educate yourself about campaigns to support food worker rights and volunteer to participate in them. Respect the people serving you. Shop locally.

To learn more, visit the following sites:

Bon Appetit Management Company
Just Harvest
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Food Chain Workers
Progressive Jewish Alliance