As we head into the holiday season, an increasing number of Americans preparing their family meals will be asking questions that would have seemed bizarre just a couple of decades ago: Is the turkey free range? Are the cranberries organic? Can we find locally grown pumpkin for the pie?
Taken to extremes, such questions can seem like a "Portlandia" parody. But concerned eaters have actually leveraged significant change to the food industry. As "slow food" and gourmand culture have broken into the mainstream, desires to support local farms, ensure environmentally sustainable growing practices and avoid pesticides have resulted in a healthier and greener food system.
Recently, a new twist has arisen in the growing trend of food consciousness. Labor rights advocates are asking eaters who care about the origins of the ingredients in their dishes to consider one additional question: How were the workers treated who harvested, packaged and prepared this food?
The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is fighting to popularize that question. Founded in 2009, the FCWA is a coalition of 22 food workers' advocacy groups, including unions representing food service, processing and retail workers, along with faith-based community groups and projects that bring together immigrant farmworkers. Their goal is to persuade consumers to demand that the employees who pick, process, ship, prepare and serve their food be paid livable wages and enjoy decent working conditions.
FCWA Associate Director Jose Oliva says that food enthusiasts can make a difference through their buying patterns. He has seen how consumers' embrace of organic produce and local, pastured meats has led restaurants, farmers and processors to source their ingredients carefully. If members of the FCWA succeed in their campaign, it could help to produce similar changes in the realm of labor rights.
One way conscious eaters can make a difference is by supporting an increase in the minimum wage. A push to raise it to $10.10 per hour (and 70 percent of that amount for tipped workers) is underway not only in highbrow food culture but also in family restaurants and fast-food franchises. Oliva says the minimum wage is "the most salient example of how foodies who have traditionally not really cared about labor issues are suddenly making a 180-degree turn" — including adding their names to an online petition to raise the minimum wage. Launched by a group of pro-workers' rights foodies called The Welcome Table, the petition is titled "Tell Congress: Don’t Let Food Workers Go Hungry," and now has over 100,000 signatures. Petition signers also pledge to pay 10 cents more per day to ensure that the minimum wage for food workers is also a livable one.