A Labor Day Recipe for a Fairer Food System

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | August 31, 2016, 10:00 am EDT
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Believe it or not, Labor Day is nearly here. For many of us, the holiday is an opportunity for one last summer beach trip or barbecue. But actually, the day is meant to honor the nation’s labor force and the contributions of workers to our collective prosperity and well-being. So what about the nation’s contribution to the well-being of workers, particularly food and farm workers who make all of our summer barbecues (and every other meal) possible? A new video from food writer and UCS Fellow Mark Bittman sheds light on the plight of these workers.

The video, launched today, is the first installment of a new series we’re calling Recipe for a Better Food System. This series will feature seasonal recipes from Mark with conversation about the US food system and the public policies that shape it.

And what better way to kick off the series than with a Labor Day conversation about fairness for food workers? This is a topic Mark has thought a lot about. Before wrapping up his widely-read New York Times opinion column last year, he wrote this excellent piece on the proposed $15 minimum wage and other worker issues. In the new video, Mark prepares a dish with fresh summer tomatoes and talks with my colleague Ricardo Salvador about the sad fact that a tomato picker often can’t afford to buy a tomato.

To complement Mark and Ricardo’s conversation, we’ve also released a Spanish-language video featuring a “behind the scenes” discussion between Ricardo and restaurant owner Natalia Mendez. A former tomato worker herself, Natalia and her husband Antonio Saavedra Torisa now run La Morada, a small restaurant in the South Bronx. La Morada openly employs undocumented workers and advocates for immigration reform, all while serving up traditional food from Mendez’s native Oaxaca (Mexico) that has received rave reviews from the New York Times and the New York Daily News.

You say tomato, I say…fair wages?

Mark’s choice of a tomato-based recipe for Labor Day makes sense on multiple levels. Obviously, this is the time of year when tomatoes are at their sweet, juicy peak at farmers markets in most of the country. But the humble tomato was also at the epicenter of a victory for farmworker justice just a few years ago, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers enlisted major restaurant chains and retailers to successfully pressure tomato growers in Florida to increase wages and improve working conditions for their 30,000 workers. The new strict standards are outlined in the Coalition’s Fair Food Program.

Of course, UCS isn’t organizing food workers on the ground. But with our partners including the Food Chain Workers Alliance—a coalition of worker-based organizations organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain—we are working to build a movement that marries concerns for workers, eaters, and the planet to build a better food system. More about that long-term effort here. And through November, our Plate of the Union campaign is working to draw attention to the need for food policy reform by the next President.

Keeping the “labor” in Labor Day

But back to Labor Day. Whether you’re grilling meat or slicing tomatoes (or both, or neither), spare a thought this weekend for the workers who grew, harvested, slaughtered, cleaned, packaged, transported, cooked, and served that food. They worked hard, and most likely didn’t get paid as much as they should.

To learn about the origins of Labor Day (and the odd controversy over who first proposed the holiday for workers), the US Department of Labor offers this brief history of the day. This TIME magazine primer on Labor Day and its relationship to International Workers’ Day (aka, “May Day,” May 1), while a couple of years old, is also worth a read.

Meanwhile, I’m hear to tell you that Mark Bittman’s pasta with salsa cruda is delicious. Wanna try it yourself? Get the recipe here, and stay tuned for more videos and recipes from Mark this fall!

Posted in: Food and Agriculture

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  • Farmer with a Dell

    I simply must comment and you will, no doubt, censor my comment because it is critical (and accurately so) of Mark Bittman and his latest reincarnation as a concerned elite for hire.

    First of all, let me say I am in favor of everyone employed on farms (including farm owners like me) earning higher wages. Why not, sounds great! Mark Bittman, I’m sure, is in favor of being well paid, himself. However, Bittman has amply demonstrated his naivete of business economics with his recent failed entrepreneurship at Purple Carrot where, it seems, he discovered a 40% increase in any operating cost (such as a blanket wage increase recommendation for “farm workers”) was cost prohibitive, even as a pass-through to the very affluent customers who were purchasing his meal kits (Bittman chronicled his eyeopening comeuppance and his nearly complete compromise of ideology during his six month stint at Purple Carrot in several columns published in Fast Times). Bittman’s simple-minded farm economics plan is merely another example of his tone deafness, did he learn nothing of practicality from his Purple Carrot debacle?

    It comes as no surprise to find Bittman now engaged in theatrics on a set portraying an upscale home kitchen preparing one of his typical grease and garlic recipes, pasta with salsa crud, featuring tomatoes farmed with the intention of affordable year-round availability in American supermarkets everywhere. It is noteworthy that Bittman, and every one of us, enjoys the luxury of slicing or dicing tomatoes into our meals in any season, not just for a few weeks each summer…a marvel, but still only complaints from effete ideologues. And for Bittman to suggest farm workers are so poorly paid they cannot afford the purchase of a tomato! Oh, come now, that hyperbole discredits anything else Bittman might say.

    Certainly all of us in agriculture could be better paid, so too could the majority of non-farm workers these days. But still we farm. Some of us make farming our livelihood for a lifetime, aspiring to become farm owners and managers. Others intend farm work as an opportunity to make a start toward a dream outside of agriculture, as did Natalia Mendez, who now owns an upscale restaurant with her husband as you point out. Few people take up farm work with the intention of being field hands all their lives, any more than people intend to make a life’s career of shift work on the grill at Burger King or as night clerk in a convenience store. I suppose those of you who did not start on the bottom rung of the ladder can be excused for failing to recognize the importance of those lowly first rungs for so many of the rest of us.

    And as for Labor Day, I thank you for reminding folks to think kindly of those of us who farm (every day, including holidays like Labor Day) to bring you the truly astonishing variety of abundant safe affordable foods you enjoy every day (including all those trendy grease and garlic recipes). But I would also have people think kindly of all the other folks who work at providing the grill you’re cooking on, the propane you’re burning, the deck you’re standing on, the SUV you drove to the party and will drive home again (sober and safely, I hope), the electricity that powers your festive party lights, the law enforcement that makes it safe for you even to be outdoors in your neighborhood, the sanitation worker who will cart away your celebratory aftermath…

    • kstillerman

      Thanks for your comment, and for your hard work to bring food to American tables. As you are well aware, farming is a difficult occupation often governed by forces (weather, pests, fluctuating prices) outside farmers’ control, and its success is critical to the security and health of our nation. And as I hope I conveyed above, all the workers involved in growing, processing, preparing, and serving food deserve our gratitude at every meal.

      But it is also essential that the public policies that shape our nation’s food system be better aligned with national goals and core American values, including good health and dignity for working people. As Mark and Ricardo point out in the video, food system workers comprise 6 of the 8 worst paid jobs in the nation. Right now the system is rigged in a way that provides huge profits to large agribusiness corporations at the expense of those working to provide our food. It is a complex issue and that is why we are studying ways to improve and streamline our food
      and farm policy for the benefit of everyone, not just corporate CEOs and others who can afford to eat in fancy restaurants.

      Speaking of which, you should know that the neighborhood restaurant Natalia Mendez and her husband own in the Bronx is definitely not “upscale.” While reportedly delicious, it is affordable and unprepossessing, as this
      review makes clear: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/eats/la-morada-stellar-oaxacan-fare-bronx-article-1.1916352.