Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

A Valentine’s Day wish: Fairness for food workers

Every year around this time, I blog about the invisible impacts of how we spend our Valentine’s Day dollars, and why it matters. Our choices for chocolate and flowers can either support innovative farmers and safe, dignified livelihoods for farmworkers whose labor brings you such Valentine’s goodies — or not.

This year I'm broadening my call for food system justice to include not only the millions of workers who harvest our food, but also the millions who work in restaurants to serve it. Did you know that Valentine's Day is the highest grossing day in the restaurant industry? A perfect moment to show your support and raise your voice for farmworkers and restaurant workers alike.

Like farmworkers, restaurant workers receive some of the lowest wages in the country. More than 10 million workers in this industry earn a paltry average hourly wage of $2.13. That’s not even close to enough to adequately feed a family or buy health insurance.

Not only is this incredibly unfair to these hard-working men and women, it can also be dangerous to all of us who eat in restaurants when workers find themselves with no alternative but to come to work sick.

Beyond consumer choices

So what can each of us do to help? First, learn the facts and help educate others about this aspect of the movement for food justice. I recommend this great new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, that tells the story of what's going on and how you can get involved.

In his state of the union address this week, President Obama failed to even mention farming and food production. But he did talk about raising the minimum wage — an action you can support right now.

I believe this is an absolute necessity. But like so many policy solutions it will take a long time to implement. So, as with fairness in the fields where farmworkers are still denied the basic protections afforded other workers, we look to engage forward thinking individuals and industry leaders to speed our progress toward fairness for food workers.

Powerful marketplace reforms

From moving Taco Bell (and nearly a dozen other large food companies) to improve the livelihoods of Florida tomato workers, to a new national "Equitable Food Initiative" in which PAN is deeply engaged, workers and industry are making progress.

In the realm of restaurant workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is pushing industry toward real reforms. For example, this past December ROC announced the success of coordinated efforts of consumers, ROC members and allies to move Darden Restaurants Inc. to pledge that they will not demote any of their full-time employees to part-time status to save on healthcare costs once national healthcare reforms go into effect.

So this Valentine's Day, before eating out with loved ones, think about how your choices support the people behind the meal — both those who have planted and harvested the food and those who'll be Behind the Kitchen Door cooking and serving it.

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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