Is it unrealistic to push for a more robust concept of sustainable food on campus that includes food workers? Yale University provides one example of what is possible. A leader in sustainable food, Yale has committed to purchase 40% of food from sustainable sources by 2013 in all its dining operations. But there are two aspects of the Yale sustainable food story that underscore the positive role workers can play in building a new food model.
First, unlike many universities, Yale food workers are not working in poverty, but are solidly part of the middle class, earning a living wage with health and retirement benefits. Represented by UNITE HERE Local 35, Yale workers struggled with the administration for decades to achieve a decent standard of living. In 2003, after a three-week strike, Yale signed a historic agreement with UNITE HERE that, among many achievements, established a framework for labor-management cooperation.
The second aspect is the key role workers and the union played in pushing for sustainable food at the university. For several years, Yale turned to a major food service contractor to run the food operations. With the switch, food workers found that the quality of food deteriorated, and recipes were replaced with processed food from companies like Sysco.
Chef Stu Comen, a cook at Yale, noted that when the outside food service operator was brought in, “we went right to canned sauce, processed cheese, pizza dough out of a box, and it was like, here we are, with our chef coats with our names on them, and we’re opening up cans of sauce.” Another cook said at the time, “[w]e spent a lot of years in this industry, now we’re just warm-up cooks.” The union cooks were literally ashamed of the food they served students.
With the protection of their union contract, and working with students and parents, food workers mounted a campaign that exposed the quality of food at Yale and how their skills as cooks were not being used.
In a drive to cut costs, the food service operator decided to close the Yale bakeshop (which had been in operation for decades), and buy baked goods from an out-of-state food processor. The workers decided to hold a taste test in the center of campus, where they offered students samples of Yale’s baked goods versus the processed baked products. They also posted the long list of ingredients from the processed bakery products. “Our bakeshop won hands-down,” said Chief Steward Meg Riccio. “When [the students] saw the ingredients that were in the baked goods from the outside vendor, they wanted our bakeshop.”
This campaign eventually resulted in the termination of the contract with the food service company, and set the stage for Yale’s move toward sustainable food. Workers were active participants in making change on campus. Although there are challenges and tensions between the Yale administration and UNITE HERE workers, Yale is still a starting point for creating a truly sustainable food model on campuses across the United States.
While Yale demonstrates the potential of involving workers in the project of reforming our food, there are also historical precedents for a broad-based coalition organized around food. In the 1930s, the two pillars of the New Deal coalition were worker and farmer movements. Workers and farmers recognized that they were frequently fighting the same powerful corporate interests, and pushed for reforms that curtailed corporate power and helped build America’s middle class. The New Deal coalition has long since disintegrated, but we have a chance to re-build a different coalition at higher education institutions that can serve as an example for the rest of society.