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Can Mark Bittman coax foodies to the picket lines?

The food columnist wants to revolutionize the way we see our food — and the wages of those who harvest and serve it

July 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

At a time when many of us check assiduously to make sure the food we eat is organic, grass fed and pesticide-free, we tend to pay less attention to whether the people who harvest, prepare and serve our food are treated fairly.

Advocates in the food justice movement have been working for decades to get people to do just that, and they have now found an influential ally in New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman.

Few writers have done more to popularize the food justice movement than Bittman, who wrote the best-selling tome “How To Cook Everything.” Through his weekly recipe column, “The Minimalist,” Bittman introduced millions of people to the idea that they don’t have to forsake their health for culinary pleasure. Since his move to the paper’s opinion pages, Bittman has become increasingly outspoken about the political issues that make it difficult for everyone, regardless of their economic background, to eat healthy food — and he has done a remarkable job of making connections between healthy eating and the larger movement for a more equitable society.

Food activist

Bittman’s increasingly political writing has not come out of the blue. An active participant in the protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bittman always believed that the different causes he supported — feminism, anti-war, black power and the poor people’s movements — were all pointing to a larger critique of market-driven society.

“There’s a reason we all are involved in these different struggles, but the reason is a common reason,” says Bittman. “I worked in community organizing for a number of years. The job was to try to unify people who thought the environment was the most important thing with people who were anti-war, with women’s liberation people, with people who thought alternative health was the most important thing.”

In 1969, when he was still a student activist, Bittman began cooking for himself out of necessity: The New York City native found the culinary options in his college town of Worcester, Massachusetts, to be distressingly limited. Although he took to cooking with gusto, he did not consider his new pastime’s place in the larger drama he saw unfolding around him. “I cooked, but I didn’t think of food as a political subject,” he now recalls. 

In his mid-twenties, Bittman worked as an organizer with the now-defunct Somerville Tenants Union. Then, after moving to New Haven with his wife and their newborn daughter, he quit politics to concentrate on cooking, cleaning and other chores to support his family. The skills he cultivated in the process assisted greatly in his transformation from restaurant critic of the alternative weekly The New Haven Advocate to renowned bestselling author.

Bittman has used his platform to call attention to the exploitation of farm laborers, the need for a universal basic income and the connections between healthy eating and higher wages.

After the success of his 1992 cookbook “Fish,” the New York Times came calling. “The Minimalist” debuted in 1997. From the beginning of Bittman’s writing career in 1980 through the opening years of the new century, his political sensibilities did not make a significant appearance in his work. It was only as leading food justice journalists such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan began exploring the institutional and systemic causes of America’s dietary habits that Bittman realized he had more to say about food than recipes.  

Shopping our way out

Bittman’s current New York Times column clarifies the connections between eating well and activists’ efforts to strengthen the wages and workplace rights of the majority of Americans. Bittman has used this platform to call attention to the exploitation of farm laborers, the need for a universal basic income and the connections between healthy eating and higher wages.

Bittman argues that these battles cannot be won in our grocery stores alone. “We’re not going to shop our way out of this situation,” says Bittman. “To the extent people eat more fruits and vegetables and, especially, support local agriculture, they’re making a difference. But … unless we see one 200 million people behaving that way, I don't think that’s the fastest or most efficient way to change the system.”

Instead, he argues, we need the kind of collective actions that gets people out of their homes, captures headlines, changes the media narrative and inspires politicians to act.

As an example of this kind of action Bittman recently held up the movement for a $15 minimum wage and its steady advance in the nation’s largest cities as a cause that was shrugged off as unrealistic in 2013, but has now made a demonstrable difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

This movement’s successes are based in “having workers come off of work and march on a picket line,” says Bittman. “It’s visible and noisy and crowd-gathering, and that works well. If consumers were to join striking fast food workers or Walmart workers on the picket lines, if [they] swelled from 200 people to 2,000 people, that would make a huge difference.”

Bittman also notes the effectiveness of boycotts waged by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. This alt-labor group won significant wage increases for farmworkers by harnessing direct action — in the form of work stoppages and hunger strikes — along with attention-grabbing boycotts that targeted specific corporations, such as Taco Bell, holding these brands accountable for the conditions in their supply chain.

“That was really innovative because [the campaigners] went directly to consumers and asked consumers to join them in boycotting,” says Bittman. “That led to the formation of an agreement between tomato workers and tomato growers in Florida, which profoundly changed the lives of the tomato pickers.”

Bittman has recently been working with the Berkeley Food Institute to craft a wide-reaching message that will make the food justice movement more accessible. His work in California aims to find issues that will get people fired up and willing to take to the streets — or at least to call their local politicians.

As in his student days, Bittman argues that making connections is critical. “We need to have food that treats the earth, and treats labor, and treat eaters better,” he says. “We have to have an economic system that treats workers better. All of these things are true. Whether they’re possible or not remains to be seen, but the current situation is untenable. So we have to work for something better.”

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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