Food Day in Boston: “I’m proud to have a voice on the job”

In celebration of Food Day, 150 students, workers, and community allies gathered at Northeastern University to calling for “Justice in the Food Chain” – from Immokalee to Boston, from farm to cafeteria. The panel and roundtable discussion brought together dining service workers, students, and faculty from Boston’s many colleges – along with farmworkers, organic growers, and local foodies – to envision a united movement for real food, real jobs, and healthy communities.

Food Day at Northeastern came six months after a movement of workers, faculty, and over 40 student organizations came together to support the 400 dining workers at Northeastern who voted to join UNITE HERE Local 26 as a step towards improving their lives, their neighborhoods, and the food system.

Organized by Slow Food NU and the Progressive Student Alliance, in partnership with UNITE HERE Local 26 and Real Food Challenge, the evening began with a locally sourced dinner donated by Chartwells (a division of the Compass Group, the world’s largest dining service provider). Speakers emphasized the key role of Greater Boston’s over 100 colleges and universities – as centers of student/worker movements, major food purchasers, and community anchors —- in transforming the food system.

Chartwells dining service worker Angela Bello connected her passion for fresh food to her childhood in the Dominican Republic and 14 years as a restaurant owner in Boston’s South End: “I want people here to eat food as fresh as I did when I grew up… like my mother always said, health starts in your mouth.” After losing her restaurant to gentrification, Angela moved to Northeastern, where she continues to bring people together through food: “There is a special bond between students and the workers that cook their food. When we the workers started organizing, the students and community came together — all the faces I saw at the vegan station were supporting us.” And because of the students’ support of Angela and her co-workers, “I’m proud to serve good quality food, and now I can say I’m proud to have a voice on the job.”

Santiago Perez, a farmworker and organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Claudia Saenz of the Student/Farmworker Alliance traveled from Immokalee, Florida to connect their movement for justice for tomato pickers to the cafeteria workers and students that prepare, serve, and eat those tomatoes. Santiago described the Campaign for Fair Food, which has won fundamental labor reforms for tomato pickers from industry leaders such as Compass Group and most recently Chipotle: “now for the very first time, these corporations, as well as the tomato industry, are seeing us farmworkers as human beings, and not simply as machines.” Claudia added that these victories were made possible by the power of students, as both consumers and allies to food and farm workers, to push for fair food on campus.

Bing Broderick of Haley House Bakery Café and Simca Horwitz of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project spoke of the importance of universities in bolstering community development and local agriculture, from cookie sales in support of Haley House’s transitional housing and employment, to Farm-to-School programs that strengthen New England’s farms and improve access to local food.

Speakers also discussed linking food and farmworker movements, empowering food and farm workers to ensure food safety and quality, and improving access to real food in workers’ communities. “For us who want healthy food, empowering workers, not only in the fields but also in the cafeterias, is a central part of that goal” said Professor Daniel Faber, Director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative.

Following the panel, the room broke into roundtable discussions that brought together students and workers, foodies and farmers, union organizers and environmentalists around the Real Food Wheel to talk about their role in the food system, their hopes for food justice on campus, and their vision of a food system that nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the earth. Angela summed it up: “We have farmworkers, food service workers, hotel workers, students, community members — people who are part of a movement to make Boston a better place to eat, and a better place to work.”

As Chartwells food workers at Northeastern University celebrated having a voice on the job, food service workers at University of LaVerne stood up to also add their voices to the creation of a sustainable future, by calling upon their employer Bon Appetit Management Company (also a division of Compass Group), to honor their right to form a union through a process of their choosing.  Stay tuned for updates on their courageous efforts to organize and their vision for a more sustainable food system.

This post was written by Aaron Martel, Research Analyst at UNITE HERE Local 26.

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