A Labor Day Recipe for a Fairer Food System

August 31, 2016 | 10:00 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

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!

About the author

More from Karen

As deputy director in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Karen Perry Stillerman manages campaigns and initiatives aimed at transforming and modernizing the American food system to make it safer and healthier for consumers, farmers and farm workers, rural communities, and the environment.