Swimming Upstream for Farm Workers’ Rights

by Vera Chang, Bon Appétit Management Company West Coast Fellow

CIW’s Lucas Benitez and BAMCO CEO Fedele Bauccio in Florida
CIW’s Lucas Benitez and BAMCO CEO Fedele Bauccio in Florida

A few months ago, a National Vice President of the United Farm Workers Union came to Bon Appétit’s office to discuss a potential collaboration between our organizations. In our conversation, we noted challenges we both face over the question: How can we institutionalize justice for farm workers? Vice President Erik Nicholson commented, only half jokingly, “Sometimes I wish farmworkers were salmon because then people might care enough to protect them.” His comment is worrisome because he may actually be right.

Let’s fast forward to a few weeks ago. Plates in hand and wineglasses on lips, we whirl through a sea of people. Dozens of hors d’oeurvres, wine choices, and dessert tables offer culinary delights. Jellyfish with brilliantly illuminated tentacles drift alongside us. Hammerhead sharks circle overhead, inches from a family of dolphinfish. A chef plates up freshly smoked halibut with endive-walnut salad and apple cider-caraway vinaigrette. We mingle with culinarians, food producers, and food lovers and learn the stories of where our food comes from. It is amazing to be here – and all in the name of sustainability. The Cooking for Solutions gala, a fundraiser for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, is just one example of the sustainable and organic food movement’s successful entry into the culinary mainstream.

The portrayal and discussion of food-related environmental issues, including salmon and seafood are now common in American media. Pick up an in-flight magazine and it would not be surprising to read about beautiful sea life on the ocean floor. If you are in Portland, check out the wild hamachi at Bamboo Sushi, the world’s first certified, sustainable sushi restaurant. Google ‘how to buy sustainable seafood’ and you will find many savvy recommendations. In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Bon Appétit Management Company and sustainable fisheries are transforming the seafood marketplace. Our oceans are still in trouble, but we are seeking solutions. These are large victories worth celebrating.

Farm worker justice is another story. Conversations sparked by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other organizations working for farm worker rights are just starting to be heard. Many of the farmers with whom I have spoken during my Bon Appétit fellowship have told me that, while they are used to speaking with the public about their agricultural practices, conversations around labor practices are far less common. I recently attended a Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ conference to scale up local food distribution. Five distribution companies that focus on grower-buyer relationships and expanding the sustainable foods market sat on a panel about values-based supply chains. I asked the panelists, “Have any of your customers requested products beyond local and organic? Have they asked for fair food, too?” There was silence. Finding a certified, domestic fair trade restaurant or a farm labor article in your in-flight magazine is unlikely. Googling ‘how to buy fair food’ will not leave you with the quick and easy solutions for which a concerned consumer would hope. The Environmental Protection Agency is now imposing restrictions on the use of deadly agricultural pesticides to protect Pacific salmon and Erik’s comment rings in my ears: farm workers are less protected than salmon. Neither Bon Appétit nor other organizations researching fair labor practices have found many realistic or clear-cut solutions to ensure fairness in the fields. There is no gala that fundraises for farm worker justice and honors the workers who feed us.

Let’s fast forward again. Plates in hand and wineglasses on lips, we will whirl through a sea of people. Hors d’oeurvres and wines will offer us culinary delights. The corn will whistle and sway as warm air brushes through the fields. Chefs will plate up arugula and strawberry salads with Meyer lemon threads and golden-balsamic vinaigrette. We will mingle with farmers, culinarians, and farm workers and learn the stories of the people who worked to bring our food here. The evening’s orange hue will color the rainbow rows of vegetables as we sit down together. It is amazing to be at this dinner, a fundraiser for farm worker justice projects, and to be part of this movement, which recognizes fairness as an integral part of sustainability. The date and time of this first annual Gala for Rights is unknown, but I look forward to seeing it in my lifetime.

About Bon Appétit Management Company:

Bon Appétit Management Company (www.bamco.com) is an onsite restaurant company offering full food service management to corporations, universities and specialty venues. Bon Appétit is committed to sourcing sustainable, local foods for all cafés throughout the country.

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6 responses

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  2. That comment, if farm workers were salmon, people would care about them–so true!
    Great article, thanks!

  3. The food may be sustainable but the wages for the food service employees are not. How about a commitment to a living wage?

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