Can food workers, students, farmers, university administrators, and the broader food movement find common ground to reform the food system, creating a model on campus that could serve as an example for other large institutions? There are 4 key reasons that there is hope for creating such a model.
1. Workers Want to Cook Again: Over the the last several decades institutional kitchens have moved away from cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients to a model that depends on pre-prepared and processed foods manufactured outside the kitchen. The key motivation for this industrialization of the kitchen was to reduce labor costs by cutting back on skilled kitchen workers and cooks. The move towards a sustainable food model at campus provides an opportunity to reverse the long drive to deskill and devalue the craft of cooking by food workers, many of whom have been trained at culinary schools or have years of valuable cooking experience.
2. Food Workers Play an Important Role in Food Safety: No one has a better vantage point to assess the safety and quality of our food than the workers who prepare and cook the meals. Yet paradoxically those who know the most about our food lack the power to speak out without the real and legitimate fear of employer retaliation. For many food workers, raising questions about the integrity and safety of the food they prepare could quickly lead to a loss of their job. While workers represented by unions have greater protection to speak out against unsafe practices, passing stronger whistleblower laws and policies would improve our food system by empowering workers on the front lines to protect and improve the food we eat.
3. Food Workers Share an Interest in Food System Transparency: Our dysfunctional food system works by operating in the shadows. The agricultural and production methods used to produce our food, and the labor conditions of workers in the food chain, are typically hidden from public view by large multinational corporations that control (and profit from) our food system. The public wants to know where its food comes from, how it was produced, and whether food producers are ethical and environmentally responsible. Universities, as institutions that embrace openness and transparency, should set an example for other large institutions by fully disclosing the source of their food purchases, and the wages and benefits paid to food workers.
4. Raising Food Workers’ Standards Addresses an Important Part of the Food Crisis: The struggle by workers to raise their working standards is intimately connected with efforts to reform our food system. Justice and fairness for workers is not just a labor “issue,” but is fundamentally a food issue. Until workers can improve their economic condition, we will continue to have a two-tiered food system in which an increasing number of Americans lack access to enough healthy food, while another set of privileged citizens enjoy local and sustainable food. What can be done to ensure that food workers on campus not only cook sustainable food, but also have sustainable jobs?
- First, a number of universities have adopted “living wage” policies for food service workers (and other workers on campus). UNITE HERE strongly supports these living wage policies as one path to raise standard for food workers.
- Beyond living wage policies, ensuring that food workers have sustainable jobs on campus means supporting fair processes for workers to form their own democratic unions to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions. Union contracts negotiated by members of UNITE HERE have substantially improved the standard of living for food workers on campus, while also providing important job protections that allow workers to speak out about food safety and other issues. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers that are represented by unions in the food service industry earn 26% more in wages than non-union workers, or approximately $5,512 more a year. And the rate of health insurance, retirement, and paid-leave benefits is significantly higher for union workers than workers not represented by unions.