There’s no denying the delightful flavor of an heirloom tomato, but can we convince patrons that food tastes better if it was made by cooks who are paid a living wage?
There is no real working definition of what “local food” means, but as a concept it’s connected food to American’s consciousness in a way that we had really only seen old hippies vibe with previously. It promotes a way of eating that is allegedly healthy, not just for the Earth, but for the consumer as well. As a movement it’s not without its criticisms, and fraud abounds, but the glow-up is real and the marketing is undeniable: Sustainability is a selling point, but how sustainable is it for the people making the food?
Farm-to-table restaurants are location specific (the farm, the table) but leave out one key location: the kitchen. Labor can go unnoticed because of physical limitations (can’t see the kitchen, farm is far away) ergo the consumer doesn’t have to (pretend to) care. But as more and more lay people have become aware of the brutal working conditions, low wages, non-existent benefits, and lack of respect inherent to the restaurant (and farming) industry, an opportunity presents itself, as lush and fragrant as a perfectly ripe peach.
While the push for local food still puts the onus on the consumer to solve the problem of climate change, perhaps this has primed restaurant patrons to start paying attention to how the people who pick, prepare and serve their meals are treated. We want to know where our food comes from, so the leap to asking who makes their food and how much they’re paid and treated isn’t such a big step. As easy as it is to mock the pretension of a patron that demands local food, and as ridiculous as it might sound now, imagine if consumers would say “Oh, that restaurant? No, sorry, I only eat at places that pay a living wage.”
It will take a while to get to that point. However, the local food movement didn’t just spring up in Brooklyn in the early 2000’s. In the U.S. local food as a novel concept can be traced from legislation in the ‘30s, an increase in factory-produced food in the ‘40s and ‘50s and the subsequent back-to-the-land hippies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the creation of nonprofits dedicated to local food and then consumer demand for restaurants serving local food in the ‘90s, and has only continued to grow thereafter. In America, local food sales were worth $1.2 billion in 2007, which more than doubled from $551 million in 1997. The movement didn’t happen overnight, and it has run the gamut from sidelong glance to full-on embrace to toss-off punchline.
Consumers are humans, and want to feel good about their choices, especially when making decisions regarding food. This is why we schlep to the farmer’s market and it’s why larger corporations have pledged millions of dollars in supporting smaller local farms; something in the idea of eating locally has connected with consumers (and their spending habits) on a gut level. Now that they are thinking about where their food came from, we can get them thinking about who made it.
How can we communicate the feel-good glow of what universal healthcare would mean for restaurant workers? Beyond the not-so-radical idea that healthcare is a human right, if we had universal healthcare, we would see a reduction in many chronic, non-communicable diseases; this would be a more accurate gauge of how healthy we are as a society, rather than how far away our vegetables were grown.
How do we push sustainability as a holistic concept, not just for the soil and water, but for the people tending, harvesting and reaping as well? Working ten-to-twelve hour days for minimum wage is not sustainable. This is how we get cooks with burns up and down their arms, angry servers, and chronically ill dishwashers. It is also how you end up with a shitty restaurant, and the guest can taste the bitterness of the staff.
If we start to think externally, by getting the general public to not just to become aware of labor issues in restaurants, as they have over the past year, but to continue to care, we can ensure our success in transforming the industry. It’s up to us as workers to speak up and advocate for ourselves and our co-workers within the restaurant so we can paint the picture we want to see for the patrons.
When we imagine a small, local farm, maybe we think of an idyllic image of a kindly farmer, smiling with their family as they harvest an abundance of heirloom crops. Those crops travel a short distance to the chic farm-to-table restaurant, serving salads bursting with colorful freshness, meat from animals that have been lovingly cared for, desserts encapsulating the most pristine examples of the season.
We don’t have that same reverie for the cooks that prepare the food – yet
We can create that vision, and much like a farmer maintains their field, preserve it so we can reap the fruits of our labor.